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Existential America
By George Cotkin

Johns Hopkins University Press.

When American soldiers enter Baghdad, they won't be brandishing portraits of Sartre and Beauvoir, or Kierkegaard and Camus, like placard-sized wolfbane against the masturbatory cult of Saddam Hussein.

But it would make perfect sense, as George Cotkin's entertaining, insightful cultural history, Existential America, suggests. CNN, Fox, the BBC and Al-Jazeera: Listen up, because you heard it here first. "Operation Iraqi Freedom" is not so much an imperialist war as an "existentialist" one.

For most of us, existentialism conjures up (1) a set of enduring, all-too-human philosophical concepts; (2) a European intellectual tradition stretching back to Kierkegaard; (3) a French philosophical approach of the 1940s and '50s chiefly associated with Sartre, Beauvoir, and heavy thinking and scribbling at French cafes - or all three.

As a cluster of ideas, existentialism emphasizes our everyday need, as both people and philosophers, to think hard about love, death, freedom, authenticity, guilt, responsibility and absurdity. As an intellectual tradition cobbled together by academics in the wake of an early 20th-century Kierkegaard revival in the United States and Sartre/Beauvoir star power of the '40s and '50s, it exemplifies the struggle with such issues since the early 19th-century by such world-class thinkers as Nietzsche, Heidegger and Ortega y Gasset.

Finally, as a specifically French contribution to mid-20th-century intellectual life, it asserts the specific stresses and characteristics trumpeted for decades by Sartre and Beauvoir: that people always exist and make choices in concrete situations, that they're "condemned to be free," and thus are forced to shape the world as they think best amid a universe deaf to their searching questions.

Cotkin's welcome addition to this picture is to recognize, as too few ever have, America's participation in existentialism and special contribution to it.

Cotkin, a history professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, begins amusingly by showing that Sartre and Beauvoir were deafest of all to America's existential ethos.

"In general," Sartre observed in 1950, "evil is not an American concept. There is no pessimism in America regarding human nature and social organization." Beauvoir chimed in that Americans had no "feeling for sin and for remorse." Cotkin says that both, along with Camus, thought Americans "lacked a sense of anguish about the problems of existence, authenticity and alienation." Rather, "American character swaggered with confidence and naive optimism."

On the contrary, Cotkin shows in the bulk of his study, "the French missed certain darker and deeper elements in the history of the American mind and spirit." For Cotkin, the "very notion of America as bereft of anguish is absurd. Death and despair appear as much in the American collective consciousness as does the luck-and-pluck optimism of Horatio Alger's heroes. How could anyone taking a glance at the despairing visages of 19th-century villagers collected in the volume Wisconsin Death Trip doubt the haunting presence of what Hawthorne famously referred to as 'the power of blackness'?"

He also rightly calls attention to Lewis Gordon, an African American philosopher who has asked whether slaves "did not wonder about freedom; suffer anguish; notice paradoxes of responsibility; have concerns of agency; tremors of broken sociality, or a burning desire for liberation... ."

The bulk of Existential America precisely examines the multiple dimensions of Cotkin's subject: what one might call the "embedding" of existentialist themes in American culture from 1741 to 1949; the influence of, and vogue for, Kierkegaard in the 1940s as the Danish thinker's works came to be widely available here; the international success of beret-topped French existentialism, and its effect on Americans such as novelists Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and Norman Mailer, photographer Robert Frank, and feminist theorist Betty Friedan. All these chapters enlighten and delight with well-chosen anecdotal details.

Most important, though, Cotkin locates the spine of American existentialism that separates it from many other varieties, and aligns it most prominently with Camus' thought.

American existentialists, Cotkin wrote, shared some of the traditional anxiety and dread of European existentialism, but they did not "contentedly wallow in such despair." Instead, they often emphasized "the upside of existential freedom: the freeing from the shackles of tradition, the possibility of a more authentic existence, and the headiness that comes with the freedom to create and be creative."

In short, they bypassed what Cotkin describes very nicely in his conclusion as "the dead-end turn of existentialism" - nihilism. Summing up, Cotkin offers a kind of salute to what we might call 21st-century existentialism, American style: "To write, to act, to create, and to rebel after a century of totalitarianism and mass destruction, and in the face of new challenges, is to engage in existential transcendence, to erect a sculpture of human possibility, albeit out of the ashes of despair."

This is not the existentialism of the brooding Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites, nor of the uncertain Woody Allen in Crimes and Misdemeanors. It's the existentialism on display as a certain coalition does its work.

  Jean Paul Sartre. A french philosopher of the 20th century.
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