Existential is a term I remember from my days as a philosophy major, that was until I decided to change my major several times following one stint in university after another, the days when some of us were professional students rather than be out of work professionals. What I remember of the term then is no different than what I hear of it today; that is, there was as little precision in its parlance then as there is for it now. It was bandied about by undergraduates I had as little patience for as Chekhov does for any university student in any of his plays in which one appears. We did not know what we were talking about then anymore than many do today. The adjective, ‘existential,’ rarely used as a critical term by any existentialist philosopher, was used more out of a reverence for smoking and drinking in the bistros along Saint Germain, than it was for any affinities with the philosophical “movement,” or with its principal figures, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir or Gabriel Marcel. I did also read Francoise Sagan. No tears yet forthcoming. Ms. Sagan is best known for her novel written when she was still a teenager, Bon Jour, Triste.
I returned to college in the early eighties, and for many of the girls I knew then, existentialism had as much to do with Ms. Sagan as it had to do with any of the former three philisophes, and that was in spite of Ms. Sagan having been dead for years, or the soft spot I had held for her for many years myself, or how I too loved drinking in French Bistros talking love, music, politics, art, literature, sex. Reading my poetry to groups assembled for such things in bars ad cafes in Manhattan, always with too much wine or cocktails or beer, was another pastime associated in the minds of American undergraduate girls with existentialism, something they also cross associated with being Beat. Most of us who were friends then in university, I dare say, were utterly useless to our society–our majors were not fruitful, in fact, they were the fruitless majors–liberal arts was an anachronism from antiquity, and respect for the serious study of philosophy or literature (as we had come to understand the literary and what would become our life-long passion for reading) were looked on with derision and contempt by those whose desire to get a degree was only so they could become marketable. There were those of my childhood friends who grew up to major in economics, business administration, or simply accounting; these were the more aspiring from my old neighborhood where most grew up to fill the ranks of New York’s civil servants, as bureaucrats, firemen, policemen, or sanitation workers. If I could have gotten away with being a libertine in this nearly oppressive society, I would have–I had come damn close.
These civil servants I grew up around were less than civil in their comments for anyone who went to college for anything other than, which was always less than, a job on Wall Street. American Psycho[s], all; you did at least see the film with Christian Bale. None of this I say with bitterness, though, because I never expected anything other than how everyone where I grew up reacted, and reacted was the word, for no one ever did anything else but ape the manners and gestures of others, mostly the guttural and simian responses of those who were the most adamant in their derision for anything sensitive, intelligent, or articulate in any way other than beer swilling gifts of gab could produce during a football game on TV. Responses were always on cue. I would venture a diatribe here, but I can also say with certainty, as well as a peculiar satisfaction, that most of the friends I made in university were no less reflexive in their own responses, likewise reactionary, only inversely so; they showed no less contempt for the working classes than many of my childhood friends would show for the American University Liberal elite; and it was still at the time, an elite.
I will not give an historical overview of existentialism or of whom the great phenomenologist philosophers as precursors were–no. I will only say one thing here, unoriginal on my part, but one thing that remains essential (irony intended) to understand what we mean when we refer to “existentialism,” just as it will then be essential in determining who might be an existentialist, as I have in the past called myself when called upon to say what I was with reference to my intellectual calling, or choosing. This thing said is from Sartre’s Existentialisme, and goes as follows: “existence precedes essence.” Yes, I am and I hereby reject deterministic excuses for abdicating my responsibility, not only for my actions, the manifestations of choices I make, but for humanity in as much as I am we, yet only in so far as each and every other person is also an I-we. There is no model over which my personality is laid. I choose to engage in my existence. Existentialism was not and is not a fundamentalism. Constraint is true; confinement is apparent, limits to our actions are real. Moreover, oppression is not in itself intolerable; whether a condition is unbearable is still within an individual’s choice. I understand how this gets a great deal of hostile responses from those who insist we are determined by our social conditions, by what surrounds us. I let them have their gripes. I prefer grapes, all from the grape: wine, grappa/eau-de-vie, cognac or armagnac, yes, in bistros, and yes, waxing or waning existential.
Existentialism is not a rallying cry of despair, but a formidable assertion of human freedom. The yawning abyss, the void, the irrefutable absurdity of the universe and the remoteness of God could make no difference in our choices. We are not all that is but the first and the last in our choices and the only valid indeterminacy is the lack of determinism or the irrelevance of any determinism in face of our necessity of choice . . . the essentials of MY freedom is there.