Stanley Cavell, 1936- June 19, 2018

It’s not easy to capture what Cavell has meant over the years in the wandering itinerary of my philosophical thought and writing. It’s easier to just assert that he’s been a major – if not the major – illuminating beacon. It’s been impossible to keep up with the wide range of his interests and production over the decades, and impossible not to be impressed by its ever-widening scope and depth.

Cavell’s unfettered explorations gave me, as a young faculty member in the early seventies, a kind of general permission to write about issues and authors off the beaten path. I remember my amazement early on, in the mid-sixties, that he could write revealingly, in the same breath, on Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, daring to make peace in a space both existentialist and Anglophone. Kierkegaard became more analytical than anyone had expected, and analytical issues began to carry an existentialist bent.

Then there was Cavell’s path-breaking work on Thoreau, whom Anglophones had dismissed as “only” a literary figure. Much later in his career, Cavell wrote an arresting piece on “passionate speech.” I saw fit to use his defense liberally in the closing chapter of my book on Thoreau. The strata of passionate speech shows the Concord saunterer to be engaged equally in philosophy, poetry, and religion.

On his ever-widening canvas, the distinction between literature and philosophy began to evaporate. Later I encountered his work on film.  For someone whose undergraduate tutelage conveyed the dogmatic assurance that philosophical writing had to engage classical issues in epistemology a la Descartes and Hume – quite deaf to ethical and literary concerns — Cavell was a breath of freedom, a permission to roam, with regard both to theme and to expository, evocative, and passionate style.

I think Cavell has earned the distinction of being the foremost contender for the title of the greatest American philosopher of the twentieth century – certainly of the second half of the century. Of course there’s something silly in even proposing such a contest.

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I was never Cavell’s student, though I’ve met many of his students, and read their work as well as his. Some are rightly grieving his passing. I find myself less grieving than suffused with gratitude for what he has meant in my life. I would not be what I have become without him.


Seductions and Circus Identity: My Kierkegaard Affair

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Epigraph: William Stringfellow:

In the circus, one person walks on a wire fifty feet above the ground, … another hangs in the air by the heels, one upholds twelve in a human pyramid, another is shot from a cannon. The performer is freed from consignment to death.

Who’d want to be an assistant professor – the butt of those Postscript jokes!  He’s good at outlining arguments and historical overviews — but never considers his existential relationship to these things. He’s a talking head. This takes him far from a Stringfellow circus performer. The Assistant is not freed from consignment to death. He’s already dead.

I have no textbook positions. I won’t speak “objectively.”  It’s objectively true that pseudonyms exemplify Gilbert Ryle’s “systematic elusiveness of the “I.” But Gordon will cut my mike if I go there. He wants to hear how I’ve been changed by the news from Denmark — he wants a subjective sense from a single individual. What’s it like to have been seduced over the years?

Well, he’s rubbed off on me. The “me” now before you is an episodic, inconclusive Kierkegaard string — of either/ors, unscientific jottings, tremblings, and pseudonyms.  I’m a circus of rude interruptions, reveries, calls from the past, and resets, half way between angst and salvation.  This is a diary of the seduced: Like any good seducer, Kierkegaard addressing my particularity, my personal angst and joy. I’m not one of a crowd or a cipher caught up in the spirit of the age. He gives attention exclusively to me, which is both flattering and frightening.  


Let me be a talking head. I have four sectors of identity.

         File-identity  — my name with code numbers for tax collectors, passport offices, motor vehicles departments, university payroll, and administrators.

         Bodily identity — my height is more stable than my weight. I have footprints as well as fingerprints. There’s a distinctive lilt to my walk, and distinctive timbre to my voice. I am an envelope of flesh and a plumber’s delight. I lack a linebacker’s body. My vocal chords are flesh.

            Socio-political-cultural identity — I’m part Irish, a Mainer with dashes of Berkeley counter-culture and New York intellectualism.  I’m not a Slovakian skier or fashion model. I could be a Concord Saunterer or tax delinquent.   

         Fourth, Existential identity — my unruly, shifting sense of presence to myself in decisive acts, fleeting memories and anticipations. The “I” who marched at King’s funeral is not exactly the “I” who joined the woman’s march in January. The “me” who reads Kierkegaard in Yafa is not this Minnesota “me.”  I had hoped that identity would be singular. What if it’s four-fold or forty-fold and growing?

My file, bodily, and socio-political-cultural identities keep me dressed properly in public. My existential me is a me-from-inside as I indecorously cheer my granddaughter’s water polo shots, or face down a bear with my son in Yosemite, — or plunge into the circus vagaries of my long-term Kierkegaard affair.


An existential act is often an identity-maker. I march in a woman’s rally, light a candle for a friend on the day of the dead. In those moments I just am those discrete acts. But often I’m scattered reveries of a “me-yet-to-be congealed,” a scattering of endless personal memories and antici-pations, a shifting multitude. If Sartre loves the definitive act, Kierkegaard loves, in addition, a “me” floating as memories and as imaginings of what I might be.

In my existential identity I live what Cora Diamond calls “difficult reality.”[1] A living room photo elicits warmth and wonder at a handsome young man in his prime. In a split second his reality shifts. The photo elicits a deep grief. That life was quickly cut short by war. In my bones I feel both realities, of blossoming youth and tragic death.  My reality is difficult, double, in sync with my conflicting feelings. Remembering Kierkegaard encounters, I’m in sync with multiple conflicting moods ingredient to my Kierkegaard affair.

It’s undignified to air personal laundry in public, but I gird up my loins.  Kierkegaard gives me tools: irony, humor, pseudonymity, paradox, Socratic evasions and inquisitions. He lets me enter difficult reality, confessing my seductions without getting stark naked.


Think of the difficulty of the Abraham portraits. There’s not a single Abraham in Fear and Trembling, but four reveries of four possible failed fathers of faith — and four reveries of Abraham as Mother. All eight attune me to identity complexities. The several Abrahams mimic the dispersed “me” who picked up Fear & Trembling 50 years ago.  Any Abraham worth savoring is a tormented enigma slouching through inconclusive identities. These are beautiful tales, Silentio says — Rilke says beauty is the beginning of terror.

Kierkegaard parades masks that provoke memories, each high-lighting a less than decisive “me.” I am multiplicity: the father con-fronting a bear, the soloist playing slightly out of tune, the scholar making sense of “an existential contribution.” These pictures provide multiple  “me-s” problematically linked to others. The “me” who looks at the photos is slightly altered with each new photo observed. I’m a difficult reality.

Kierkegaard’s moments flicker like album photos, moments flashing by in words, titles, sentences, paragraphs, appendices, prefaces. Only if I share dancing snippets of what I am to myself can I bear witness to Kierkegaard’s gifts. You must feel the presence of me, the recipient, as well as the generous, anonymous donor. I’m a relation related to myself and to another who constitutes me.


I’m a flaneur, promenading with him through paragraphs or streets or memories. I mull reveries of father-and-son tromping Tuolumne Meadows, aware of bears. I cheer my granddaughter rifling shots at her water polo net.  SK encourages my reveries as a lover of souls, far away and close by, of toddlers and friends, here and there. My existential circus gets unmasked as phases of a difficult reality, not unlike the inharmonious voices of my friend’s pseudonyms. I arise in glancing bits and pieces.

There are exquisitely existential celebratory moments: “here I stand, I can do no other.” “Here we stand, we outfoxed the bear.” Resolution at that point upstages gossamer possibilities. There awaited a fleeing me, fighting me, nonchalant me, paralyzed me. I ponder “me-s” amidst love, shame, anger, and a thousand other moods and presences. The Dane leaves me hanging: to hide or not to hide or to resolve decisively.

Over the decades I’ve succumbed to Kierkegaard’s wiles — dialectically and lyrically, comically and pathetically, through zillions of scenarios. I’m bewitched by an endless raconteur, a Socratic inquisitor, a theatrical prompter.

    Mondays: I realize that I’ll never outlive my existential challenges, nor escape being forever an enigma to myself.

    Tuesdays:  I learn my despair needn’t be terminal: I can morph toward an existential hide-and-seek, an indispensable coping mechanism. I can mimic his mimic-ironic-pathetic excursions. Late night terrors can morph toward adventures.

    Wednesdays: he whispers that even classroom stints can be laced with humor, paradox, and theatrical pseudonymity.

    Thursdays: I’m reminded that humor, paradox, theatricality, and pseudonymity aren’t just evasions but part and parcel of living lives within lives: solitary life morphs toward romantic life, family life humors temple life, musical life tempers body-maintenance life. A sense of me emerges from circus transience and multiplicity — from clowns, dialectical high-wire acts, pathos, paradox and irony, from inwardness and pseudo-nymity.

    Fridays:  Books. I notice details: He lingers with graveyard night mists, with throw-away Crumbs; with Either/Ors and Fears and Tremb-lings. Life and books coalesce and become full of daring sideshows — feats of strength, passionate infinities, throwaway prefaces, the hide and seek of clowns and pseudonyms.

    Saturdays:  Charades. Living room furniture is pushed back and invited guests join us in carnival and farce, romance and heartbreak, grief and salvation.

    Sundays: praying, resting, recuperation, little discourses or sermons – afternoon walks, taking in the cityscape, the landscape, the church-scape.


 Fear and Trembling gives us side shows:  a weaning mother mimics a weaning Godhead. Abraham strides about as a whistling shop-keeper. These are high-wire acts, difficult realities, impossibilities for assistant Professors. Thinking becomes contrapuntal, a fertile mix of the ethical, the poetic, the dialectical. This is far from impersonal arguments or knowledge.

He slips into the garb of a parson, professor, lawyer, editor, journalist, dramatist, bachelor, master thief – a Socratic flaneur, writer sans portfolio. It rubs off on me. My file identity as professor is overcome by motorcycle escapades, singing on stage with Leontyne Price, peering down from the Golan Heights to the Valley of Tears. Each is a flash of identity. I’m arm in arm with my granddaughter by the Guadalquivir. I’m talking on a St Olaf lawn.

Think of the circus vitality, the immortality, of his titles: Either/Or, Prefaces, Repetition, or the clincher, Postscript. If you spiff it up in full regalia, it’s A Final Unscholarly Afterthought, Sequel to Scraps of Philosophy: A Mimicking, Pathos-filled, Dialectical Compendium, an Existential Provocation.  This is riot and carnival.

Odd creatures like Prefaces or Either/Or break up literary cubicles. They’re Socratic irritants that teach me Socratic ignorance, bafflement, helplessness, joy. Why expect the closure of definitions and non-circus, un-difficult reality?

 I relish his tone. His Prefaces, he says, are “like tuning a guitar, like chatting with a child, like spitting out a window.” Put that in your CV!  He’s pulling my leg. Postscript and Fear and Trembling aren’t entirely serious — more like “tuning a guitar.”  Fear and Trembling begins with “attunements.” He calls Prefaces the work of “a light-hearted ne’er-do-well.” That’s not for your CV.

 His fetching titles — A Final Unscholarly Sequel to Scraps of Philosophy — spark me beyond scholarship. This is carnivalesque. His menageries let me be a menagerie – father-professor, wanderer-musician, family-chief-of-staff, seeker-of-home-scape, social butterfly. And there are dark shadows. Even carnivals meet the rude closures of death. 


Socrates-Kierkegaard passes on the baton of authentic response to me. His elusiveness shows up in the feint and parry of those books — part literature, part philosophy, part polemic, part sermonic, part farce, part who-knows-what. Not all books have a neat and proper place on the shelf. My friends don’t fit snugly in a well-labeled social-cultural niche – thank God! Why think there’s a single trans-lucent niche for me?

If I’m only my social and file identities – professor, father, Portland resident, musician – I truncate myself. In contrast, my existential bits and pieces let me bloom — in walks with my son, in cheering my grand-daughter, in assembling poems, in performing Elgar’s Salud D’amour. I want to relish each fleeting face in the theater of me – and mourn those I can’t relish and want to disown. And I want to relish those others who open their souls to me.

SK‘s existential contribution is his actual performing – playing out the paths of pathos and mimicry, dialectic and lyric. It rubs off on me as I savor and fear my multiplicity. This is a carnival of existential richness, difficult but exuberant, comic more than tragic, well beyond the ken of an Assistant Professor.


Read at St. Olaf College International Kierkegaard Conference, Sat. afternoon, 2018, June 16th


A Knack for Surrender

                         You’re never too old to learn something new.

Memorial Day was started by former slaves on May 1, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina, to honor 257 dead Union soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp. They dug up the bodies and worked for two weeks to give them a proper burial – as gratitude for fighting for their freedom. They then held a parade of 10,000 people led by 2,800 Black children, where they marched, sang, and celebrated.

That’s good news. It might bring tears to your eyes.  It’s also tragic news. Jim Crow set in and these 2,800 children lost their freedom. Who grieves for THEM?  They rose from slavery and were buried. Will they rise again? Christ lives, dies, and rises from the dead. Dostoevsky has Christ return to the living in 14th century Spain, only to be imprisoned again.

We need double vision to track the rise and fall of freedom and salvation, of Christ’s presence, death, and elevation. We need double vision to track the ups and downs of our personal fortune, decade by decade, day by day. We need a knack for love, joy, and celebration, a knack for grief, surrender and resistance. That’s what it’s all about. One flows to the other and back as smoothly as the tides in Back Cove or as violently as the tides in Eastport. Sometimes the rise and fall is vertical: “He who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us.” 2 Corinthians 4-14      But for that we need a knack for surrendering to the Lord.


Belief, in its way, is surrender, surrender to the improbable. It’s improbable I’ll be raised from the dead. Even if I was raised to believe I will rise, I’d hesitate to say it’s certain I’ll elevate. I might hope, trust, pray, or have faith I’ll be raised up. But I’d need faith precisely because, in any everyday sense, it’s improbable I’ll be raised. The disciples found an empty tomb. I don’t expect my friends to find my tomb empty.  Belief, here, is surrender to the improbable belief that I’ll be raised from the dead — just as Jesus was improbably raised from the dead.

I don’t care if I’m raised from the dead. You can have too much of a good thing. I want to be raised from the tomb of lovelessness, of loneliness. That means surrendering to God’s improbable Unconditional Love. Why me, with all my blemishes and foibles?  I used to think surrender only meant running from a fight, quitting, an unmanly thing.  But now I see surrender in love, which is a good thing.

It’s important to fight attacks on our way of life. It’s also important to surrender to Unconditional Love — and to love of friends. I surrender to their words, moods, and heartbeats. I listen and lower my guard. Fighting has advocates; surrender has few.

The Book of Job shows a knack for fight and surrender. Job is under attack. He resists God and his friends. Then, out of the blue, like a rising tide, God takes his breath away, and Job surrenders. The storm brings forth creatures great and small, sunsets and dawns, valleys and streams. Overwhelmed, Job gives up.  It’s like a surrender to music. I let music wash over me, have its way with me. If God is music in stars over water, I surrender – melt away. When Job stops fighting, he says: “I retreat; I’m quiet; I melt away.”


In classical music you fight to be alert and then give way to the ‘cello — you yield, surrender. We surrender to poetry, to the serenade of birds, to the smile of a 2 yr. old in pew 18.  Giving way is a supreme good. We need wisdom to guide us through doubleness — when to fight and when to melt away.

In laughter we surrender. Did you know God laughs? It’s reported that Hafiz, a 14th century Persian poet and holy man, said, with a twinkle, “My Lord told me a joke.  And seeing him laugh has done more for me than any scripture I will ever read.”  

God isn’t too up-tight to laugh. He — or She — can melt away in laughter.  Maybe not belly laughs. Laughing Buddha has an impish smile. In giggling we collapse.  Hafiz sees God surrender to the charm of a humorous tale, become vulnerable, put big power to one side. As they laugh together Hafiz and God become intimate, arm in arm.


If you can’t surrender when you’re wrong, and have to fight even true accusations, you’re lost. Overcome by laughter, my stiff upper body melts away, my face and voice break up. A self-assured person can laugh at himself. He needn’t always dominate. Mr. Comey says his Inquisitor never laughs at himself. Tammy Duckworth, Senator from Illinois, a veteran and double amputee, fights back against the libel that those who don’t applaud him are traitors.[1] Little D, little cadet bone-spurs, as she calls him, only knows how to demean, bully and boast. She’s funny, calling him cadet bone spurs. She can laugh as she fights.

God can sound like a bully. “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.” But maybe God isn’t full of wrath.  In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy shows that it can mean we shouldn’t be vengeful. Vengeance belongs on God’s bookshelf, not ours. We should surrender our wrath back to God to shelve among other archaic impulses. A God of Unconditional Love doesn’t put vengeance to use.  


Women don’t have a monopoly on vulnerability, yielding, or surrendering, nor do men have a monopoly on fighting or resisting. Men might assert and mansplain, women might listen and defer, but roles aren’t fixed. I might prefer a cradling Mary to a thunderbolt-throwing Lord.  Kierkegaard blurs the sexes. He imagines a nursing Abraham, an Abraham weaning his son Isaac. Perhaps God, as Queen Mother, weans us from dependence for the sake of our freedom.  

My friend the boxer is a tiger in the ring and surrenders to God. My friend in AA fights the bottle and surrenders to God. In music I fight to keep my technique and surrender, yield, to the ‘cello. There’s a knack to how and when to surrender. We fight for human rights and yield before musical words, the serenade of birds, the smile of a 2 yr. old in pew 22.

Love and surrender can prompt forgiveness. “Forgive them, they know not what they do!”  In a haunting tale, Dostoevsky shows Christ yielding to Love and Forgiveness. It’s the 1400’s in Spain, and the Inquisition roars. The Grand Inquisitor spots Jesus in the crowd, and jails him. Later, speaking alone with Christ he explains: I’m more compassionate than you are; I give people what they need — authority, creeds, ritual – I show more love than you did; they just can’t handle freedom.

Jesus listens — Then kisses the Inquisitor on the lips. He is forgiven. The prelate turns pale. He forgives the forgiver.[2]  The story takes my breath away.  It’s biblical through and through.


Here’s a lighthearted Rabbinic tale about surrender. A boy knits a dozen bright caps to sell at the fair. He wears his favorite, and bundles the rest in a sack, heading through woods on the way to the village. Tired, he naps under the trees and awakens to find his beautiful hats stolen – all but the cap on his head.

The trees sway with cavorting monkeys, showing off their bright new hats. The boy screams, “Give them back!” – they scream down, “Give them back!” He yells “I’m serious! I need them to sell at the fair!” They yell back, “I’m serious! I need them to sell at the fair!”  Utterly frustrated he surrenders. Sobbing, he throws down his hat,  “Here, take this!” The monkeys throw down their hats, sobbing “Here, take this!”

The battle’s won in giving up. The boy gives up fighting and recovers everything. He gives up and gets back. This is a rhythm of faith.


Here’s a rabbinic parable. I have two slips of paper, one in each pocket. The first says “You’re the most important person in the world: stand up, fight for your values and who you are.”

 In the other pocket, the slip says, “You are nothing but dust and ashes; stop taking yourself so seriously.” I’m as inconsequential as the evening breeze. Or “The evening breeze is wonderful! — I surrender to a glory immeasurably larger than I am.” 

When I stand up for myself, I’m at the center of the world; when I love or melt into the stars, I’m nothing.

We pray for wisdom here — when to reach for the left pocket, when to reach for the right.  When to call on the knack of resistance and rebellion, when to call on the knack of surrender.

What to do, fight or surrender, is often uncertain. But I know for certain this truth:

Without a trusting surrender, without faith and hope, I’ll neither love nor forgive. I’ll remain in a tomb of lovelessness, no matter how many battles I enter or win. And that’s not for me. 



Loyalty and devotion lead to bravery.
Bravery leads to the spirit of self-sacrifice.
The spirit of self-sacrifice creates trust in the power of love.
Morihei Ueshiba





[1] Tammy Duckworth    “We don’t live in a dictatorship or a monarchy,” she tweeted. “I swore an oath — in the military and in the Senate — to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, not to mindlessly cater to the whims of Cadet Bone Spurs and clap when he demands I clap.”
[2] Christ doesn’t strike him dead. The Inquisitor surrenders, even as Christ surrenders to love.


He was weathered like an old Florida surfer but as far from surf as can be, here on a hilltop accessed by a single-lane gravelly road where a café cutely called “Coffee Annan” served cappuccino to help buffer the cool breeze outside.

He didn’t have coffee, but stood in the lee of the crest of the hill selling honey of a dozen sorts, nicely jarred.  It was the end of the day, sun quickly setting. He was a Druse, about 70, a retired high school math teacher, with good English as well as Arabic and Hebrew.

We had climbed steeply up the old volcanic dome to park among other cars where tourists come to see the abandoned battlements perched strategically on the dome overlooking the Golan plains. He sold his honey from the trunk of his sedan. “Honey,” it turned out, was sometimes bee honey, but mostly any fruit – apple, grape, cherries, figs — crushed and cooked allowing natural sugars to ferment. He knew all the Russian names of his assortment of sugars. The bunkers and observation points scattered with tourist information lay just beyond the dozen or so cars parked on the gravel in relative disorder.

Walking to the edge of the battlements on Mt. Betal, balancing our coffee, we could see

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the strikingly beautiful plains below, the Valley of Tears where Syrian tanks, outnumbering Israeli armor ten to one, nearly broke through to the Galilee four decades ago.

With a smile and wonderfully friendly eyes, and a neat mustache white with age, our gregarious Druse told us he had a brother in Lebanon, another in Syria, another in Jordan, another in Israel – gesturing with his hand 360 degrees — as if to remind us that each brother was more or less in view, only a stone’s throw away.

When he learned I was American, his face lit up as he announced a cousin in Oklahoma City.

Looking down and across the landscape, I could see no clue across the fields or up to the base of the mountains of national borders. Lining up the honey we would purchase, our obliging vendor seemed to be saying that he could live in any of the neighborhoods – they were all the same to him. He liked them all, and he invited us to, too..

The history under and amidst these run down bunkers that rained fire on the valley below didn’t lessen his good cheer a bit.


To the Editor: Portland Press Herald

I am a relative new comer to Munjoy Hill, but that may give me a special appreciation of the neighborhood whose zoning is being considered. I notice the explosion of new construction that doesn’t fit in with the architectural “feel” of the neighborhood, but my concern is with what new and expensive condominiums will do to the relaxed, walking atmosphere that is so distinctive of the Hill.

Kids wait for the bus on the corner. Their parents are not nervous about fast traffic or busy pedestrians. I’m 77 and can walk down the middle of the streets without a worry when snow blocks the sidewalks.  The slow pace of traffic is contagious. When I arrive for my morning coffee, most are regulars who have walked there and know each other. I say hello to passerbys on the way to and fro. Traffic is slow and VERY polite. The Italian tailor shop flourishes, as do the small food markets and restaurants. Often I know those who eat during summer at sidewalk tables.  This is not an upscale neighborhood — though new construction threatens to make it so.

I have nothing against richer folks who wander on our relatively sleepy streets. But if the density of upscale building and upscale residents increases, the neighborhood “feel” will suffer. There’s something valuable in having a neighbor who has lived here for 40 years and another for 30, and she doesn’t need a car because she can walk everywhere at 72. Young parents like the slow pace for baby carriages and letting kids roam a bit on the way to the market or to be dropped off to school.

The look of buildings is important to preserve, but neighborhoods are, too. And upscale means commuting and shopping elsewhere, to the detriment of the wonderfully personable feel of Munjoy Hill.

Hardly Navel-Gazing


MAY 16, 2018

IN THE 1950s, existentialism was a hot topic of cultured conversations; William Barrett’s Irrational Man and Walter Kaufmann’s Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre were best sellers. There were voices for and against it in the Partisan Review and The Village Voice. Existentialism was a mood as much as a philosophy, feeding on the ennui of the postwar years. This was an age of quiet desperation and existential angst, peopled by the hollow men, the faceless crowd, the man in a gray flannel suit.

By the mid-1960s, however, the mood was shifting from desperation to protest. In 1969, The New York Review of Books featured essays on Bobby Seale, Nixon’s war machine, the battle of Berkeley, and a Yippie piece by Jerry Rubin. As a cultural presence, existentialism was now overrun by the anger stirred by the Vietnam War, Civil Rights movement, and Black Power; it was then that the Weather Underground came into existence. The cachet of existentialism also declined in Europe, for parallel reasons: “deconstruction” advanced, and Emmanuel Levinas replaced Camus as the cultural figurehead. Dallying with meaning in life, personal morality, or faith was now a pastime for the effete.

Gordon Marino’s brilliant The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age is a rendition of the themes memorably presented by Barrett and Kaufmann, yet he gives existentialism a 21st-century presence more gripping, nuanced, and convincing than in its initial American portrayal 60 years ago. The personal may be the political, as activists claim, but it is also the richly existential, and it is fundamental in its own terms. It is hardly navel-gazing or a preoccupation of the clinically depressed. The author’s compendious scholarship shines. As important for an existential account of the subject, Marino honors its deeply personal appeals, and he is adept at giving witness to fragments from his own rich personal history. Despite existentialism’s decades in the shadows, no one cracking this book can think it is passé.

The chapters course through anxiety, depression, despair, and death, and into the recuperative light of authenticity, faith, morality, and love. The prose is electric, illustrating the point that existentialism is also literary; Rilke and Ralph Ellison make cameo appearances, just as we find here the compelling drama of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground and Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. The discussions are the best among dozens I’ve read over many years.

Marino places Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre center-stage. The gaps between psychology and philosophy are closed. From the 1960s onward, Erich Fromm, Rollo May, and Erik Erikson, among others, kept the spirit alive, casting anxiety and its mitigation in terms borrowed from Sartre or Nietzsche. Marino continues this tradition, giving us Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre at their eloquent and insightful best.

Is anxiety a mental disease calling for medical treatment, pharmaceutical or otherwise? Marino gives us a chapter-length discussion. Perhaps it’s a necessary, even welcome, aspect of the human condition. Kierkegaard identified anxiety as central to any identity worth the name. It rises to a high pitch when we ask: “How can I be the person I truly am and should be?” To have anxiety here shows I take my life seriously. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard asks: Is Abraham’s faith obedience to God? Gratitude that God delivered Isaac in Sarah’s old age? Thanks that God returns Isaac? How can Abraham believe in a God who at whim both gives and takes back? These are apocalyptic anxieties, putting God, woman, and man at great risk.

By steering through issues that bear on us personally, and revealing their disruption and augmentation of his life, Marino avoids purely abstract, academic exposition. Classes in existentialism and existential psychology are popular because, apart from vocational promises, they offer a personal relevance all too absent in lectures devoted solely to impersonal facts and techniques. While Marino’s grasp of the literature is impeccable, his verve and wit as a writer stand out, and his self-revelations are not self-promotions.

“Authenticity” has a positive ring, but we may stumble trying to get clear about it. Marino helps clarify the terrain. Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich is about authenticity and love as well as death and dying. We witness the closing struggles of a man whose life, as he sees it now, was never more than “fitting in,” “looking good” — getting promoted, getting a wife. At death’s door he realizes he has never given warmth or an ounce of himself. He has been loving toward no one; his assembled relatives are strangers to him. Only his servant is kind, recognizing his master’s fear and trembling, his struggle for words of contrition as time runs out. Ivan Ilyich cannot speak from the heart because he has never engaged his heart.

Marino asks us to move from deathbed vigils to death more generally. This ought to be simple enough. Objectively, death is all around me, no more elusive than the weather or taxes. Things change when a loved one or neighbor dies; to pause with their demise is often a poignant moment to assess the meaning of their lives. Battlefield deaths, murders, or suicides are more troubling to grasp. If death is universal and commonplace, how can it shake us to the core? From the inside, it casts into sharp and often painful relief what we care about. From the outside, it’s no more interesting than the pedestrian fact that insects are squashed or birds fly into glass.

And what of faith, that classic repository of meaning in life, of valorized compassion, of balms for anxiety and fear of death, of hope for new life? Marino suggests there’s an existential inescapability of faith-as-trust, theistic or otherwise, that survives despite declines in church membership and the polemics of “the New Atheists.” Faith is a passion, not a litany of facts, and we can credit existentialists with the insight that eliminating moods and feelings from our self-understandings will also eliminate courage, hope, a sense of right and wrong, and a sense of personal resolution.

A full life I can call my own is not derivative, and it will ferry dark moods and also celebrations and loves, moral courage and kindness. If there’s a place for anger and moral outrage, there’s also a place for good-heartedness and neighbor-love. Attention to existential dimensions of living, and full incorporation of them, is not a devotion to systematic knowledge and technical analysis. It’s acknowledging and sharpening our sensibilities to the moods and agitations we live with willy-nilly. We get a feel for them through philosophy, music, art, and literature. They stretch and refine our sensibilities. To acknowledge the varieties and vagaries of anxiety and meaning, of courage, authenticity, and compassion, is at the heart of any existentialist portrait of what it means to be human, and at the heart of this Survival Guide.


Edward F. Mooney is professor emeritus at Syracuse University and was visiting professor at Tel Aviv University. His most recent book is Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion (Bloomsbury, 2015). He is also the author of Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy from Thoreau to Cavell (Continuum, 2009), as well as several books on Kierkegaard.

The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age

By Gordon Marino

Published 04.24.2018
272 Pages

Optimism and Pessimism: The Sad Case of Steven Pinker

As fate would have it, while checking out Gordon Marino’s new Existentialism book on Amazon, I caught the advertisement for Steven Pinker’s, Enlightenment Now.

According to the blurbs, and what I’ve seen in the interviews that he’s given, his notion is that if you take the long view, we should be optimistic: we live longer, have better health, more wealth, more peace, and more freedom than ever before.  He subscribes to the Enlightenment view of reason being an engine of progress, and an engine that has worked. He even graphs progress over the ages.

I don’t doubt his graphs, but I reject that the graphs should erase the bad news and make us optimistic.

Take this blurb for another new book:

A sweeping history of twentieth-century Europe, Out of Ashes tells the story of an era of unparalleled violence and barbarity yet also of humanity, prosperity, and promise.

Konrad Jarausch describes how the European nations emerged from the nineteenth century with high hopes for continued material progress and proud of their imperial command over the globe, only to become embroiled in the bloodshed of World War I, which brought an end to their optimism and gave rise to competing democratic, communist, and fascist ideologies. He shows how the 1920s witnessed renewed hope and a flourishing of modernist art and literature, but how the decade ended in economic collapse and gave rise to a second, more devastating world war and genocide on an unprecedented scale. Jarausch further explores how Western Europe surprisingly recovered due to American help and political integration. Finally, he examines how the Cold War pushed the divided continent to the brink of nuclear annihilation, and how the unforeseen triumph of liberal capitalism came to be threatened by Islamic fundamentalism, global economic crisis, and an uncertain future.

What’s the lesson? Well, it seems Out of Ashes captures the truth of the ups and downs of history in a vivid way, refusing — reasonably — to tally whether the ups outweigh the downs. He writes as any morally sensitive person would, recognizing the co-presence of barbarism and decency in recent European history.

What’s wrong with Pinker’s approach?

If I said I was optimistic about the world the day after 9/11 or Hiroshima, I’d be irrational, insensitive, and blind.  The Pinker view is that we should look at the high points in the ups and downs of history, and look from on high, not from the trenches or the emergency rooms or the villages subjected to gas attacks.

I’d say it can be immoral and certainly insensitive to watch the highs getting higher rather than taking in the horrors of immediate suffering.  If I lose only two of six children to street violence or disease I should — what? — cheer because 100 years ago I would have lost three of six children to violence or disease?!?

Pinker’s mistake is to think that judging progress in the long view gives me reason to be optimistic in the short view, here and now. If my here-and-now is Syria or Yemen, or loss of health benefits, or news of the disintegration of justice in Washington, it won’t help to join Pinker in applauding the fact that things were worse all around 200 or 500 years ago. Horrors are horrors whether or not medieval or stone age or 3rd world horrors are worse.

Dan Rather takes a walk in the woods when the news gets too depressing. That’s more reasonable that reading Pinker’s cheer-me-up tonic. Massacres should be depressing no matter their past frequencies or purported present infrequency. We should be ashamed and pessimistic that reason hasn’t made massacres as unthinkable today as dying  from the common cold.