Exit No Exit

Whatever happened to existentialism?


In postwar New York, existentialism was sexy, debonair, chic, and anti-academic. It was either a philosophy or something resembling one, a bundle of linked ideas and assumptions, largely imported from Europe, that attracted the herd of independent minds feeding the cultural discourse on this side of the Atlantic. Advocates quoted Jean-Paul Sartre (“existence precedes essence”) and called it an action philosophy, a survivor’s answer to nihilistic despair. Whatever it was, it went well with berets and saxophones, abstract expressionists in cold-water lofts, and heroes of novels searching for authenticity in a universe of chance, a North African desert, the pages of the Partisan Review, or a movie theater outside New Orleans.

For a certain extraordinary period of time, everyone wanted to be existential. Not everyone knew what this meant, exactly, but everyone wanted the distinction. Misused and overused, the very word existential began to function as a sort of highbrow condiment of choice, the squirt of moutarde de Dijon that spiced up the hot dog of a banal observation. It was irresistible. To Norman Mailer, existential signified the cool of John F. Kennedy at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 1960—or maybe it meant a mutual climax achieved by anal intercourse. If you wore sunglasses in the subway and listened to Miles Davis, you were probably existential.

Was there a difference between existential and cool? Yes. Though it was possible to be both, as the example of Miles Davis attests, there were a lot of cool cats without an existential bone in their body. Think of Johnny Carson or James Bond or Mickey Mantle. At the same time some bona-fide existentialists would bore you stiff if you had to spend an hour in their company at La Coupole or Les Deux Magots. I feel certain, for example, that an hour with Heidegger, whose existential credentials are impeccable, would be harder to endure than an hour with Wittgenstein or Bertrand Russell.

According to Albert Camus, Algerian-born hero of the French Resistance, practicing existentialism was like fishing in a bathtub. A well-meaning neighbor, thinking to humor the fisherman in the bathtub, says, “Catch anything?” “No, you fool,” the fisherman replies. “Can’t you see this is a bathtub?” Delmore Schwartz sticks with the bathtub image. “Existentialism,” he wrote, “means that no one else can take a bath for you.”


Some of the greatest moments in the history of existentialism are:

• Nietzsche’s announcement in Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (The Gay Science, 1882) that God is dead.

Time magazine’s confirmation that God is dead in its cover story of April 8, 1966.

• The moment Jean-Paul Sartre realized that in hell he would have to room with Albert Camus.

• The moment when, in a BBC-TV production of a Sartre novel, a man who has impregnated a young woman and now, in a fit of conscience and remorse, lifts a cleaver to lop off his offending organ, has second thoughts. “I cannot do it,” he says, putting down the cleaver. “I am condemned to be free.”

• The moment when David Hemmings as the no-name photographer in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) retrieves the nonexistent tennis ball that the mime troupe pretends to have lost.

• The moment in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) when the spy, played by Richard Burton in his seedy trench coat, decides to die with the librarian, played by Claire Bloom, rather than abandon her on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall and escape to his freedom in the West.

• The first time Herman Melville’s Bartleby, an existentialist avant la lettre, says, “I would prefer not to,” declining to perform a task assigned him by his boss.

• The evening in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (1960) when the hero, a young family man, drives off and decides not to return home. The hero’s last name, Angstrom, includes the German word for anxiety or dread, Angst, which was second only to alienation as the term of choice in the bars below 14th Street during those heady postwar days when existentialism ruled the discursive roost.

Existentialism died with the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Relief pitchers began to sport flamboyant mustaches, feminists insisted that the personal was political, Andy Warhol made silkscreen prints of Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, the phrase Deep Throat referred first to a porn flick about a blowjob queen and then to a clandestine news source spilling the beans on Watergate, and Lennon and McCartney’s “Yesterday” eclipsed Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are” as the most recorded love song of the 20th century. All this plus Vietnam and deconstruction spelled the demise of existentialism.

Such perhaps is the fate of certain avant-garde movements in art or thought. They arrive with the intent to move heaven and earth, and after they’ve gone, what they leave is their faded glamour, and it’s the same old hard earth, and heaven’s as remote as ever.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up