Stranger in a Strange Land

The enduring American appeal of existentialism


Of course I remember my first time. Only a true cad—or a true liar—doesn't.

When I look back on it, I was way too young—just 14. It happened, of all places, in the musty basement of the house I grew up in, during a lazy summer afternoon when for one reason or another my parents and siblings were gone and I had the place all to myself.

A square beam of dust-filled light streamed in from a small window, and I stumbled across a box filled with books whose pages were alternately brittle and yellowed and mildewed.

I picked up a small paperback with an odd cover and a cracked binding and squinted to read the book's first few lines, among the most famous in 20th-century literature: "Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure…"

I spent the next two hours sitting on the basement's cool concrete floor, ripping through Albert Camus' seminal existentialist novel The Stranger. By the time I had finished that relentlessly compelling tale of gratuitous murder and vague redemption—"all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration," read the book's last words—my sense of the world had been shattered into a thousand pieces.

I didn't really understand The Stranger (I confess I still don't), but somehow it spoke to me, and I went on to devour Camus' other fiction and philosophical works, including "The Myth of Sisyphus" and The Rebel (another great opening line: "What is a rebel? A man who says no."). From there, I dug into the two other French figures most associated with existentialism in these United States: Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Soon enough, I firmly believed that "existence precedes essence" (something else I've never quite understood) and embraced the four Ds that the critic Walter Kaufmann said defined existentialism: "dread, despair, death, and dauntlessness."

One of the great pleasures of reading George Cotkin's brilliant study Existential America (Johns Hopkins) is that it explains why existentialism has proved so deeply appealing and enduring in an American context—this, despite haughty claims by Camus, Sartre, and de Beauvoir that we were too shallow and upbeat a people, too lacking in metaphysical anguish, to get what they were saying. Cotkin, a historian at California Polytechnic State University, details how existentialism in its French and Kierkegaardian forms hugely influenced people ranging from Whittaker Chambers to Richard Wright to Betty Friedan to Tom Hayden. He traces how existentialism similarly informed the Beats and the civil rights movements of the 1960s and makes a provocative case that the 9/11 attacks will keep it relevant for a long time to come.

"To be existential," writes Cotkin, "is to wrestle most fully with the jagged awareness of one's own finitude, with the thunderbolt fact that my death will be my own, experienced by no one else….To be existential is to recognize, in the face of all these somber truths clutched close to our own sense of being, that we must act."

Cotkin's most original insight is something that escaped Camus and the others: "Existentialism, American style…jibes well with American antinomianism, that willingness of the lonely individual to rebel against entrenched authority in the name of his or her most intense beliefs. Antinomianism, like existentialism, challenges easy certitude, entrenched religion, and moribund political assumptions."

He rightly identifies figures as diverse as Jonathan Edwards, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, William James, Edward Hopper, and Walter Lippman as "existentialist precursors," each wrestling in his or her own way with the four Ds, yet always refusing to make a "fetish out of nihilism."

If Existential America falls short in any way, it is that Cotkin at times inveighs against contemporary America as "a culture saturated with the consolation of easy salvation" through easily gotten material goods and worldly success. Such a culture, he fears, breeds smugness, shallowness, and superficiality.

In such moments, he fails to appreciate that it is precisely the relative richness of lifestyle options, including banal ones, which predisposes us to existentialism and its insistence that "we must act." The freedom—however incomplete it may be—that has allowed Americans to constantly reinvent themselves in ways unimaginable in Europe is hardly an impediment to a deep and continuing appreciation of existentialism.

Indeed, the acts of choosing we necessarily make on a daily basis—in the marketplace, in the workplace, in how we live—are its very essence.