Hardly Navel-Gazing

IN THE 1950s, existentialism was a hot topic of cultured conversations; William Barrett’s Irrational Man and Walter Kaufmann’s Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre were best sellers. There were voices for and against it in the Partisan Review and The Village Voice. Existentialism was a mood as much as a philosophy, feeding on the ennui of the postwar years. This was an age of quiet desperation and existential angst, peopled by the hollow men, the faceless crowd, the man in a gray flannel suit.

By the mid-1960s, however, the mood was shifting from desperation to protest. In 1969, The New York Review of Books featured essays on Bobby Seale, Nixon’s war machine, the battle of Berkeley, and a Yippie piece by Jerry Rubin. As a cultural presence, existentialism was now overrun by the anger stirred by the Vietnam War, Civil Rights movement, and Black Power; it was then that the Weather Underground came into existence. The cachet of existentialism also declined in Europe, for parallel reasons: “deconstruction” advanced, and Emmanuel Levinas replaced Camus as the cultural figurehead. Dallying with meaning in life, personal morality, or faith was now a pastime for the effete.

Gordon Marino’s brilliant The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age is a rendition of the themes memorably presented by Barrett and Kaufmann, yet he gives existentialism a 21st-century presence more gripping, nuanced, and convincing than in its initial American portrayal 60 years ago. The personal may be the political, as activists claim, but it is also the richly existential, and it is fundamental in its own terms. It is hardly navel-gazing or a preoccupation of the clinically depressed. The author’s compendious scholarship shines. As important for an existential account of the subject, Marino honors its deeply personal appeals, and he is adept at giving witness to fragments from his own rich personal history. Despite existentialism’s decades in the shadows, no one cracking this book can think it is passé.

The chapters course through anxiety, depression, despair, and death, and into the recuperative light of authenticity, faith, morality, and love. The prose is electric, illustrating the point that existentialism is also literary; Rilke and Ralph Ellison make cameo appearances, just as we find here the compelling drama of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground and Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. The discussions are the best among dozens I’ve read over many years.

Marino places Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre center-stage. The gaps between psychology and philosophy are closed. From the 1960s onward, Erich Fromm, Rollo May, and Erik Erikson, among others, kept the spirit alive, casting anxiety and its mitigation in terms borrowed from Sartre or Nietzsche. Marino continues this tradition, giving us Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre at their eloquent and insightful best.

Is anxiety a mental disease calling for medical treatment, pharmaceutical or otherwise? Marino gives us a chapter-length discussion. Perhaps it’s a necessary, even welcome, aspect of the human condition. Kierkegaard identified anxiety as central to any identity worth the name. It rises to a high pitch when we ask: “How can I be the person I truly am and should be?” To have anxiety here shows I take my life seriously. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard asks: Is Abraham’s faith obedience to God? Gratitude that God delivered Isaac in Sarah’s old age? Thanks that God returns Isaac? How can Abraham believe in a God who at whim both gives and takes back? These are apocalyptic anxieties, putting God, woman, and man at great risk.

By steering through issues that bear on us personally, and revealing their disruption and augmentation of his life, Marino avoids purely abstract, academic exposition. Classes in existentialism and existential psychology are popular because, apart from vocational promises, they offer a personal relevance all too absent in lectures devoted solely to impersonal facts and techniques. While Marino’s grasp of the literature is impeccable, his verve and wit as a writer stand out, and his self-revelations are not self-promotions.

“Authenticity” has a positive ring, but we may stumble trying to get clear about it. Marino helps clarify the terrain. Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich is about authenticity and love as well as death and dying. We witness the closing struggles of a man whose life, as he sees it now, was never more than “fitting in,” “looking good” — getting promoted, getting a wife. At death’s door he realizes he has never given warmth or an ounce of himself. He has been loving toward no one; his assembled relatives are strangers to him. Only his servant is kind, recognizing his master’s fear and trembling, his struggle for words of contrition as time runs out. Ivan Ilyich cannot speak from the heart because he has never engaged his heart.

Marino asks us to move from deathbed vigils to death more generally. This ought to be simple enough. Objectively, death is all around me, no more elusive than the weather or taxes. Things change when a loved one or neighbor dies; to pause with their demise is often a poignant moment to assess the meaning of their lives. Battlefield deaths, murders, or suicides are more troubling to grasp. If death is universal and commonplace, how can it shake us to the core? From the inside, it casts into sharp and often painful relief what we care about. From the outside, it’s no more interesting than the pedestrian fact that insects are squashed or birds fly into glass.

And what of faith, that classic repository of meaning in life, of valorized compassion, of balms for anxiety and fear of death, of hope for new life? Marino suggests there’s an existential inescapability of faith-as-trust, theistic or otherwise, that survives despite declines in church membership and the polemics of “the New Atheists.” Faith is a passion, not a litany of facts, and we can credit existentialists with the insight that eliminating moods and feelings from our self-understandings will also eliminate courage, hope, a sense of right and wrong, and a sense of personal resolution.

A full life I can call my own is not derivative, and it will ferry dark moods and also celebrations and loves, moral courage and kindness. If there’s a place for anger and moral outrage, there’s also a place for good-heartedness and neighbor-love. Attention to existential dimensions of living, and full incorporation of them, is not a devotion to systematic knowledge and technical analysis. It’s acknowledging and sharpening our sensibilities to the moods and agitations we live with willy-nilly. We get a feel for them through philosophy, music, art, and literature. They stretch and refine our sensibilities. To acknowledge the varieties and vagaries of anxiety and meaning, of courage, authenticity, and compassion, is at the heart of any existentialist portrait of what it means to be human, and at the heart of this Survival Guide.

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Edward F. Mooney is professor emeritus at Syracuse University and visiting professor at Tel Aviv University. His most recent book is Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion (Bloomsbury, 2015). He is also the author of Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy from Thoreau to Cavell (Continuum, 2009), as well as several books on Kierkegaard.

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