Being Here

The United States of Anxiety

But de Beauvoir did complete The Ethics of Ambiguity, and Sartre's American translator, Hazel Barnes, wrote An Existentialist Ethics. Existential morality typically starts with the individual's freedom and tries to find respect for others' freedom within it. The move parallels Kant and Hegel, although they had the advantage of seeing freedom as inextricable from reason. By grasping situations from a suprapersonal point of view, reason discourages the selfish abuse of others. For existentialists, however, freedom precedes and exceeds reason—which makes it much harder to build a moral edifice. Then again, which is more important today: to build edifices, or to reflect on their fragility?

Richard Wright's The Outsiders: in an existential line from Dostoyevsky to the Coen brothers
photo: courtesy Yale Collection of American Literature, Bienecke library
Richard Wright's The Outsiders: in an existential line from Dostoyevsky to the Coen brothers


Existential America
By George Cotkin
Johns Hopkins, 359 pp., $39.95
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In a summary of Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Cotkin describes philosophy professor Louis Levy as a man who always said "yes" to life, but inexplicably committed suicide. That's how Cliff Stern—an unrealistic maker of obscure documentaries, played by Allen—interprets Levy, but it's not what Levy says in the footage we see. Levy describes love and God as self-contradictory and the universe as a valueless place. Is it so surprising that he chooses to depart existence one day, leaving a note that reads, "I've gone out the window"? Existentialism can't keep us from killing ourselves—but no philosophy can do that. The great merit of existentialism is its sensitivity to the tensions that will confront us as long as we choose to remain in being.

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