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.