Last year I published a book on French philosophy since 1960 with a chapter entitled "What Ever Happened to Existentialism?" The title referred to the fast and apparently complete fall of existentialism from favor among leading French intellectuals, beginning at least as early as the 1960s. My chapter analyzed the fall, asked whether it was as decisive as it seemed, and ended with suggestions that the movement may have had more long-term influence than it seemed to.
Adam Gopnik's recent New Yorker essay on Albert Camus and his relation to Jean-Paul Sartre reminded me how irrelevant my title's question appears from a broader cultural standpoint. Whatever the ups and downs of Camus's or Sartre's stock on the high cultural exchange, their existentialism (not to mention that of their 19th-century predecessors, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche) has continued to spark interest among the larger population of educated people. The point is also illustrated by the strong reactions, both for and against Sartre and Camus, in the comments on Andy Martin's recent piece in The Stone. And, of course, the enduring sign of interest has been the perennial popularity of undergraduate college courses on existentialist philosophy and literature.
Gopnik shows the reason for this continuing attraction. I would not recommend his essay as an accurate technical presentation of existentialist thought. For example, Sartre's magnum opus, "Being and Nothingness," is not an effort to "reconcile Marxism and existentialism"; that comes much later in his "Critique of Dialectical Reason." Nor did Sartre reason to his support of Marxist revolution through an atheistic version of Pascal's wager. But Gopnik has a ready response to such philosophical quibbles. The popular appeal of existentialism lies more in its sense of drama than in careful analysis and argument. As Gopnik exclaims: "Philosophers? They [Sartre and Camus] were performers with vision, who played on the stage of history."
This is not to say that existentialists - particularly Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir - are not intellectually serious thinkers. But in contrast to most other philosophers, they work out of a continuing sense of human existence as a compelling drama. In part this derives from the heightened stakes of the war and occupation from which their mature work emerged. Recall Sartre's example of his student who was trying to decide whether to abandon his mother and join the Free French army. On the conventional view, the student's decision would depend on whether he loved his mother or his country more. But Sartre insisted that the decision itself would create the greater love the student might later evoke to justify it.
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