The Magazine

Angst, American Style

The coming of existentialism to the new world.

Apr 21, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 31 • By WERNER J. DANNHAUSER
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Existential America

by George Cotkin

Johns Hopkins University Press, 359 pp., $39.95

EXISTENTIALISM HIT AMERICA in the wake of World War II, primarily as an import from France. It struck on many fronts, with highbrows savoring Hannah Arendt's pontifications in Partisan Review, while Vogue readers gazed at a full-page photograph of Albert Camus, easily the most handsome of the existentialists. The New Yorker, Time, and the New York Times paid attention, and in 1946 Sartre on a visit was treated as a celebrity. At first it looked like merely one of the passing intellectual fads the French have always been generous at offering us, but it proved to be more--much more. In 1948 Karl Löwith could state, without a hint of irony, that "we are all existentialists, some consciously, some willy-nilly, and some without knowing it."

What accounts for existentialism's easy triumph in America? It was something of an over-determined event. The traditional paltriness of academic philosophy in the United States contributed, as did our natural curiosity about a European cultural scene that the war had obscured for some years. Present as well was the gloom that attended the realization that the unconditional surrender of our enemies had not done all that much to increase our happiness.

In "Existential America"--a book heralded as the first full-length study of existentialism in America--George Cotkin begins with the sensible assumption that this country must have provided fertile ground for the new philosophy. He finds an "existential awareness," preceding existentialism, in an American Puritanism acutely aware of the pervasiveness of evil as well as the immense distance between God and man. Cotkin is at his best in tracing the recognition of the dark side of the human soul that characterizes the best of American literature in Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Dickinson, and others. When "Democracy in America" declared American poetry an abstract portrayal of democratic man, Tocqueville was not at his best. Writers in America have always been lacking in the sappy optimism that Europeans, especially French existentialists, liked to ascribe to the nation--and so, it is safe to say, have been most American readers. They had heard of hell and evil even before they saw Sartre's "No Exit."

Unfortunately, "Existential America" goes downhill rapidly after its promising start. Cotkin has trouble with just about everything concerning existentialism, beginning with its definition. He is favorably inclined toward Walter Kaufmann's association of existentialism with a heightened awareness of dread, despair, death, and dauntlessness. If one counters Kaufmann's lust for alliteration and changes "dauntlessness" to "courage," one might actually have a legitimate beginning for thought. Existentialism does elevate courage above all other virtues, and it does specialize in analyzing extreme human situations.

BUT COTKIN DOES VERY LITTLE along this line. That may be because he is impressed, even captivated, by the amorphous appearance of existentialism. One can't blame him, since existentialism came to America as something compatible with everything under the sun. One can prove that there can be no Christian existentialists, since existentialism portrays man as floundering in meaningless chaos--and then notice that in real life Christian existentialists abound. Similarly one can prove there can be no Marxist existentialists, since existentialism insists on man's complete (and dreadful) freedom--only to discover that Marxist existentialists are thick on the ground. At times it seems that anybody who ever experienced a bit of unhappiness and concluded that life is no bowl of cherries qualifies as an existentialist. Cotkin hardly lays this suspicion to rest, granting as he does existentialist legitimacy to Walter Lippmann, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Woody Allen, Paul Newman in "Cool Hand Luke," and even Abraham Lincoln.

The fault lies with the author and not with the phenomenon he investigates. Existentialism may not have an essence in the classical sense, but it is nevertheless recognizable tolerably well as a cluster of characteristics. We can, with complete assurance, declare Samuel Beckett to be more of an existentialist than Dwight D. Eisenhower. Moreover, it is quite possible to go beyond its "flabby periphery" (as Leo Strauss did) and find existentialism's "hard core" in the thought of Martin Heidegger, who, as it were, arranged a meeting between Nietzsche and Kierkegaard.

"Existential America" has very little to say about either Nietzsche or Heidegger. Cotkin's lame excuse is that he is writing "a cultural and intellectual history rather than a history of philosophy." He does not consider it worth mentioning that H.L. Mencken wrote a book about Nietzsche and that William James, justly admired by Cotkin, quoted Nietzsche unfavorably. If that does not qualify as cultural and intellectual history, what does? Cotkin scants Heidegger on the shaky ground that Sartre and company reached these shores before him; he does not seem to care that "Being and Nothingness" by Jean-Paul Sartre is virtually unthinkable without "Being and Time" by Martin Heidegger.

That leaves Kierkegaard, who is not exactly slighted in "Existential America," rating a two-chapter section entitled "Kierkegaardian Moments." Even so, the treatment of Kierkegaard is wholly inadequate, partly because Cotkin is forever dwelling on the reception of writers at the expense of what is received. One learns, for example, as much about Hazel Barnes, Sartre's translator, as about Sartre himself. What is more, in the Kierkegaard section, one learns more about Walter Lowrie, Kierkegaard's translator and biographer, than about Kierkegaard. Lowrie, to be sure, commands attention as a crank who came to blame "a cabal of Jews and British jingoists" for World War II. Still, such tidbits are not worth having at the expense of information about Kierkegaard, a towering thinker who employed reason's power to expose reason's limits and did so with unmatchable wit and fervor.

That's not to say that Kierkegaard's thought presents no problems. Like Pascal before him, Kierkegaard chose to interpret the Bible as though it did not begin with Creation, after which "God saw everything He had made, and behold, it was very good." Fiercely Christian, he nevertheless denounced institutional Christianity, thereby becoming the patron saint of all those who think they are profound when they say, "I believe in God but not in organized religion." He was so alarmed by the advent of democracy that he did not scruple to advocate a hair-raising politics, becoming, as it were, a fascist before there was fascism.

ONE FINDS only the barest allusions to all this in "Existential America," for Cotkin has no feel for the complexity of great thinkers and their thought. Optimistic and benevolent, he seems to think that since existentialism is a good thing and America is a good thing, existentialism in America must be a very good thing. He never comes to terms with the dubious political influence of existentialism, even though that is precisely what ought to be staring him in the face.

One thinks of Nietzsche, with his advocacy of slavery, praise of cruelty, and blistering contempt for parliamentary politics. One thinks of Martin Heidegger, who eight years after the fall of Hitler could still speak of the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism. One thinks of Jean-Paul Sartre and his twisted apologies for the Soviet Union. And one thinks of Simone de Beauvoir, who found nothing to love about America except perhaps the novelist Nelson Algren, the nearly forgotten author of "The Man with the Golden Arm."

One thinks, for that matter, of Betty Friedan, who in "The Feminine Mystique" likened the state of the American woman to incarceration in a Nazi concentration camp. Cotkin introduces the affinities between de Beauvoir and Friedan toward the end of "Existential America," in an effort to conclude on a positive note. Existentialism has been good for African-American literature, he argues, so we find chapters on Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. It proved good as well for artists like Barnett Newman, photographers like Robert Frank, and moviemakers like Martin Scorsese. Existentialism, in short, has been good for nearly everything, and thus Cotkin comes to a relatively cheerful conclusion: "In this frightening world, existentialism invites us to confront the tragic nature of existence and to place simplistic dichotomies and naive optimism behind us."

In his search for an existentialism safe for domestic consumption, Cotkin does not, to be sure, completely overlook the philosophy's darker aspects. The hero of the book is Albert Camus, and one can readily understand why. Camus's politics are the most sensible of the existentialist pantheon, and he is altogether its most appealing figure, if only because he died young.

He is unquestionably a better novelist than de Beauvoir or Sartre. Still, Camus has problems of his own. He was not as viciously anti-American as some of his fellow Frenchmen, but he was by no means averse to bashing America for its optimism and materialism. He looked hard for "a third way" between American democracy and Soviet totalitarianism, even when there was none. And, most unfortunately, as a thinker he was simply not on the level of Sartre or Merleau-Ponty. One is tempted to conclude, from the example of Camus, that well-meaning men make for second-rate existentialists. (An analysis of Karl Jaspers, neglected in this book, would probably strengthen that conclusion.)

An adequate treatment of the topics Cotkin investigates remains to be written. And it ought to be written, for we are not through with existentialism. We are surely not through with digesting Heidegger's thought, let alone moving past it. Existentialists of the right and the left will most likely continue to attack the center--which is to say bourgeois life, also known as liberal democracy, also known as most of the rest of us. The best, the noblest way, for us to react to such attacks is to discover what brought this disdain upon us and what, if anything, has merit in the charges we confront.

Werner J. Dannhauser is a visiting professor in political theory at Michigan State University.