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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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.