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Hayden Carruth

Existentialism entered the American consciousness like an elephant entering a dark room: there was a
good deal of breakage and the people inside naturally mistook the nature of the intrusion. What would
it be? An engine of destruction perhaps, a tank left over from the war? After a while the lights were
turned on and it was seen to be "only" an elephant; everyone laughed and said that a circus must be
passing through town. But no, soon they found the elephant was here to stay; and then, looking closer,
they saw that although he was indeed a newcomer, an odd-looking one at that, he was not a stranger:
they had known him all along.

This was in 1946 and 1947. And in no time at all Existentialism became a common term. No
question of what it meant; it meant the life re-emerging after the war in the cafes of the Left Bank—
disreputable young men in paint-smeared jeans, and their companions, those black-stockinged,
makeupless girls who smoked too many cigarettes and engaged in who knows what follies besides.
And their leader, apparently, was this fellow Sartre, who wrote books with loathsome titles like
Nausea and The Flies. What nonsense, the wiseheads concluded. Perfectly safe to dismiss it as a fad,
very likely a hoax.

Meanwhile at centers of serious thought the texts of Existentialism, especially Sartre's, were
being translated and studied, with a resulting profound shock to the American intellectual establish-
ment. On one hand the Neo-Thomists and other moral philosophers were alarmed by Existentialism's
disregard for traditional schemes of value; on the other the positivists and analytical philosophers were
outraged by Existentialism's willingness to abandon rational categories and rely on nonmental
processes of consciousness. Remarkably violent attacks issued from both these camps, set off all the
more sharply by the enthusiasm, here and there, of small welcoming bands of the avant garde. That
the welcomers were no less ill-informed about Existentialism than the attackers, didn't help matters.

Nevertheless Existentialism, gradually and then more rapidly, won adherents, people who took it
seriously. Someone has said that Existentialism is a philosophy—if a philosophy at ail-that has been
independently invented by millions of people sim-
ply responding to the emergency of life in a modern world. Coming for the first time to the works of
Sartre, Jaspers, or Camus is often like reading, on page after page, one's own intimate thoughts and
feelings, expressed with new precision and concrete-ness. Existentialism is a philosophy, as a matter of
fact, because it has been lengthily adumbrated by men trained in the philosophical disciplines; but it is
also and more fundamentally a shift in ordinary human attitudes that has altered every aspect of life in
our civilization.

The name, however, like the names we give all great movements of the human spirit—
Romanticism, Transcendentalism—is misleading if we try to use it as a definition. There are so many
branches of Existentialism that a number of the principal Existentialist writers have repudiated the
term altogether; they deny they are Existentialists and they refuse to associate in the common ferment.
Nevertheless we go on calling them Existentialists, and we are quite right to do so: as long as we use
the term as a proper name, an agreed-upon semanteme, it is as good as any, or perhaps better, for
signifying what unites the divergent interests.

It is nothing new. William Barrett, in his excellent book Irrational Man (1958), has shown that
what we now call the Existentialist impulse is coeval with the myths of Abraham and Job; it is evident
in the pre-Socratic philosophies of Greece, in the dramas of Aeschylus and Euripides, and in the later
Greek and Byzantine culture of mystery; and it is a thread that winds, seldom dominant but always
present, through the central European tradition : the Church Fathers, Augustine, the Gnostics, Abelard,
Thomas, and then the extraordinary Pascal and the Romantic tradition that took up his standard a
century later. And in the Orient, concurrently, the entire development of religious and philosophical
attitudes, particularly in the Buddhist and Taoist writings, seems to us now to have been frequently
closer to the actual existence of mankind than the rationalist discourses of the West.

Yet in spite of these precursors and analogues we would be gravely wrong to deny the modernity
of Existentialism. Philosophical truth assumes many forms precisely because times change and men's
needs change with them. Thus what we call Existentialism today, in all its philosophical, religious, and
artistic manifestations, springs with remarkable directness from three figures of the last century. Two
were philosophers, S0ren Kierkegaard and Friedrich

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