2001: Joel and Ethan Coen release The Man Who Wasn’t There. It exudes the late ’40s: Cold War, Roswell flying saucers, Parisian existentialists. Barber Ed Crane is disconnected from his wife, his work, his society, himself. He murders by accident and is accidentally convicted of a different murder. Existence is absurd, except perhaps for the hope offered by the white light of a UFO—the ultimate alienation.
Is The Man Who Wasn’t There a nostalgic noir tribute? A snickering parody? Or a deadly serious work of art, a revival of existential storytelling? As can happen with the Coen brothers, it’s hard to tell. In some ways the world of the film seems remote: a time when bookshelves groaned under titles such as The Fate of Man and Man the Unknown. (Ed Crane tells his tale to “a men’s magazine”—could it possibly be the premier journal of existential philosophy, Man and World, recently renamed Continental Philosophy Review?)
But is it permanently passé to speak of man—or if you prefer, the human condition? Existentialism begins with the enduring insight that before all explanations and definitions of the world and ourselves, we are plunged into mortality, uncertainty, and the need to choose. Short of suicide, the closest we can come to evading this condition is self-delusion. As Heidegger puts it, we are always faced with the task of “being there.”
The existentialist vogue and the ’60s counterculture were replaced by a quarter-century of fin-de-siècle irony. Nothing was original or absolute, the free individual subject was a construct. Derridean deconstruction became the new dogma of American mandarins. But these days even Derrida, advanced in years, is primarily concerned with the paradoxes of death and religion. And in a new century when it is impossible to take our national existence for granted, the old-fashioned questions—why are we here? what will we do?—no longer seem so old-fashioned.
In Existential America, intellectual historian George Cotkin proves existentialism’s relevance by showing that it was never just a fad; existential sensibilities run deep in our history. Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus, who all toured the United States after the war, saw only the country’s exterior, its consumerist boosterism. But would it be so surprising if the land of the free were also the land of the searching, the anxious, the alienated? This is, after all, the country of Herman Melville and Edward Hopper. One Frenchman who looked carefully at Americans, de Tocqueville, would not have been surprised to find echoes of a lonely Dane here. Cotkin traces those echoes, as well as the politically charged American reactions to the French existentialists. Along the way he drops fascinating anecdotes about how existentialism touched everyone from FDR to MLK, from Whittaker Chambers to Betty Friedan.
One of Cotkin’s important contributions is his account of how European thought melded with African American “blues existentialism.” As de Beauvoir wrote, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Does one also become black? Existentialism, as a philosophy of freedom that rejects predetermined identities, lent powerful concepts to African American writers. Wright’s The Outsider and Ellison’s Invisible Man stand in a distinguished line of tales of existential alienation, from Notes From Underground to Unamuno’s Mist to The Stranger—to The Man Who Wasn’t There.
On the whole, Existential America is an engrossing, readable account of a major current in our cultural history. Of course, Cotkin’s scope means that he usually doesn’t go far beneath the surface—and occasionally he doesn’t even get the surface right. Some errors concern philosophical concepts. Sartre’s pour soi is not “the thing-for-itself,” as Cotkin has it, but no-thing at all: free consciousness, a subject and not an object. Kierkegaard’s “sickness unto death” is not faith, but despair. His “Knight of Faith” transcends ethics not for the sake of the universal, but for the sake of the particular. And “the principle of sufficient reason” is not a willingness to drop the question “why?” but an insistence that there must be a reason for everything. Other errors concern tones and moods, which are no less important than philosophy for a cultural historian. (Heidegger “arch”? Hardly. Either “apocalyptic” or “pastoral” would work better, depending on the text.)
2003: In a Pomona, California, restaurant, a man fires an unprovoked, fatal shot into a two-year-old’s head. When the police catch up with him, he screams, “Shoot me.” They do.
We look for explanations: drugs, psychosis, abuse. But when do explanations become excuses? We overlook human freedom, which is always capable of nihilism—saying “no” to our own existence, the existence of others, the existence of the world itself. That is undoubtedly evil, wrong, immoral . . . but the nihilist doesn’t care—which is what makes him a nihilist. Existential thinking focuses on the permanent, problematic reality of human choice, and this is why existentialism is better able to understand us than theories that simply draw up lists of good and bad actions.
Can there be an existentialist ethics, then? Sartre famously promised an ethics at the end of Being and Nothingness and failed to deliver. (His aborted drafts were published posthumously as Notebooks for an Ethics.) And of course, existentialists aren’t necessarily moral paragons. Heidegger was a Hitler enthusiast through the mid ’30s; Sartre romanticized Mao. Self-styled existentialist Norman Mailer wrote in 1957, “I obey the logic of the extreme psychopath—even if the fear is of himself, and the action is to murder.”
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?
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.