Were the French Existentialists correct
in concluding that the "American character swaggered with confidence and naive optimism?" Sartre observed, "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." And Camus, thought Americans "lacked a sense of anguish about
the problems of existence, authenticity and alienation." In Carlin Romano's book review of Existential America by George Cotkin, Mr. Romano argues "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".
The post war period was a time when the
United States was the victor, savior of the world. The new global empire would be idealistic, benevolent and magnanimous.
Naïve optimism might be over generous in describing that innocence. Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus may not have been
the chroniclers of a de Tocqueville, but de Tocqueville certainly would have understood the angst experienced in the creation
of the great American experiment. The 1950's was an era of benign tranquility. The threat of a nuclear holocaust
loomed, but the society refused to forego its self-assurance. The "good old days" truly were nostalgic bliss.
From the Village Voice, Richard Polt asserts that: "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
Conversely, the overwhelming enthusiasm
that supports the regimented 'PC' culture, economy and political system; often is immune to the underlying conflicts, intended
exploitation and managed future. Over the last half century the accelerated demise of the land of the free has been
transformed into the reservation of the oblivious. The awakening that took place during the 1960's suffered a relapse.
The buoyancy of the civilization is not maintained with mere material progress. The test of true advancement lies in
the consciousness of collective community. What was naïve before has become delusional today.
Christopher Luna's insightful comments on Existential America illustrates the sublime influence of distress in our search for authenticity.
"The willingness of Kierkegaardian thinkers to wrestle with "paradox, irony, and tragedy" in the aftermath of World War II
made the Danish philosopher's ideas very attractive to writers including Thornton Wilder and W.H. Auden, as well as the painters
Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, for whom art was "a mythological and heroic 'act of defiance,' which opened the path to transcendence
through engagement with the canvas and the unconscious." Kierkegaard's "mode of argument, positing two opposites," was also
posthumously appropriated by Cold War proponents who demanded that Americans make a choice between "faith in God and faith
How ironic that the trust in country
demonstrated in the 50's has digressed into a psychosis of support in a political matrix that has virtually adopted the traits
of Communism, while crucifying the teaching of God. The clash of RealPolitick has the consequences of national demise under the banner of jingoistic tolerance. The formula for 'good citizenship'
has been written by a crazed pharisee pharmacists operating under a government grant and filled with drugs that neutralize
Luna asserts: "Existentialists argue
for personal responsibility in the face of what Walter Kaufmann identified as the four elements of this philosophy: "dread,
despair, death, and dauntlessness." He goes on to say that Cotkin shows there was an existential strain in American
culture that preceded the afore mentioned French philosophers, "in the work of Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Edward
Hopper, among others. Unlike their French counterparts, American intellectuals "refused to make a fetish out of nihilism";
instead, "anguish and despair" functioned as "goads to action and commitment."
The pragmatic character of American convention
has a "can do" assurance that problems can be resolved. European annals have a long heritage of distrust for
government, limits on upward mobility in society and brutality from continental hostilities. The anguish internalized
from that history has not impacted the American culture to the same severity. Yet, who can deny that despair is enveloping
our own post-millennia chaotic milieu? The emptiness of material excess, has not fully reached the pedestrians on Main
Street. Nonetheless, the arrogance of unlimited hubris in the track for a global empire has hit deeply the practices
of a demented Wall Street.
American Existentialism is a healthy
tradition that needs to go mainstream. The fiction in the public psyche spins a yarn of communal unity when the reality
of competing factions has no substantial commonality. The verity of control from the top down pervades every aspect
of institutional behavior. Government maintains a monopoly on coercion as the means to herd the unruly into pens of
docility. Where is the optimism when the fabulous fifties are but a blast from the past? It is not absurd to resist
the juggernaut of servitude. Rational nihilism doesn't destroy fundamental values, morality or time honored principles.
Positive nihilism acknowledges that eradication of existing failed political practices, the destruction of criminal government
agencies and the elimination of fallacious imperialistic aspirations are necessary for real improvement.
Cotkin views the American experience
as having an undercurrent of compelling anguish, which serves as a spur to commitment and onto action. If justice is
a primary objective, the agony of enduring under an interdependent model of human conformity and material servitude necessitates
the vision of existential rebellion. It is in the good and proper tradition of our heritage to correct a wrong, especially
one that has gone so far a field of original intentions. There is nothing more noble than confronting despotism.
Once you feel the pain of domestic anguish, the naïve will start to grow up.
The practical is an integral component
in the legacy of our founding. The existential is also an essential element in knowing and understanding what is worthy
of preserving and what must be purged. George Cotkin argues that an existential approach to life, marked by vexing despair and dauntless commitment in the face of uncertainty,
has deep American roots and helps to define twentieth-century America in ways that we have not realized or appreciated.
If you are unable to recognize national misery, your founding in historic independence is most lacking. Grasping that
existentialism is a proud part of American tradition is a first step. Use this philosophy as a constructive means to
change behavior and instill motivation towards action.
SARTRE - August 29, 2005