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" 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.