If I ever read "Irrational Man" (Wm. Barrett's study on Existentialism) the first time around, I've forgotten it. Either way I absorbed much more than I imagined, maybe from the reality that provoked it. He makes the point that EXSTNLSM was not a philosophic invention or some kind of French literary fad. It was a genuine, pervasive and widespread human reaction to the torquing of the whole of western civilization around the turn of the century (1890-1910). He even suggests that it was much less of a phenomenon in the East because eastern philosophies already had incorporated some of its principles.
It is both a product of the modern (or modernist) age and a mirror to it. It was a reaction to capitalist materialism and its hidden discontents. It was a deep questioning of the nature of religious experience and belief. And it was perhaps a scattershot reaction to science, both its nuclear power, and its new relativist core. It questioned rationality and its ability to describe or explain existential experience. (References to Bergson much appreciated.) And it was certainly more.
Written in the 50s, Barrett is aware of the difficulty importing any ideology from Europe, France in particular, into the U.S. And the great irony, not only of EXSTNLSM but of the U.S. dilemma in 2011, is that Europe seems to have understood and absorbed its meaning, at least in part. While the U.S. rejected it, more out of fear than anything else. It occurs to me this is a clue to when, and even how, America started to lose its bearings, maybe even its marbles.
In the film "The Battle of Algiers" the French general (leading the attempt to crush the Algerian uprising) comments to reporters about the blistering criticism coming from Jean Paul Sartre in the French press. "Why are all the intellectuals always on the other side?" he ponders, with a piercing and intelligent gaze and with no hint of the irony.
Most of all, to oversimplify, Barrett’s EXSTNLSM represents the willingness of any individual to ask him- or herself the most difficult questions that came ... to mostly everyone ... at the dawn of the 20th century. What is the core nature of existence? What are man and woman to do with their sense of alienation and isolation? What is the nature of meaning and, as the old forms fail us or go missing, must each of us construct our own? Are there rational limits to technology and state power? Doesn’t Art have a coherent cultural core? Or must we all figure each work out on our own? Can we no longer rely on society to tell us who we are? Must we reconstruct our identities from thin air?
Can’t resist quoting the man in this context. “How does it feel to be on your own, with no direction home, like a complete unknown ... ?”
OK, OK. The point being American denial is at the core of our dilemma and it goes back to our rejection of those questions. It’s a signal of how far the conservative mindset has come to dominate the assumptions of our public discourse. Most specifically, once a set of beliefs are established (no matter from when or by whom) and once those beliefs seem to support policies that defend a chosen world view (imperialism, exceptionalism) we must never question them. Never question ourselves, our assumptions, our fears, our myopic obsessions and desires, our anger or our belligerent nationalism. Our power and position, technology and money, give us no option but to use them, to take what we want or destroy what we fear, whether rational or not, just or unjust. Without question.
Come on in Willful Ignorance, sit down. We’ll abide by the window and watch the children play, reflections of ourselves waiting for the deluge or the drought.