Thursday, November 13, 2008

Existentialists Get Laid More, That's Why

Steve G asks today why existentialism is so attractive to young intellectuals. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this question myself and I have a few guesses. This year, at my new job, I am teaching Existential Philosophy. I was always welcome to teach it at Gettysburg, but I chose not to do so because I don't tend to like the kind of student it attracts. Yes, I am going to be crass, but what I think it attracts is: an alienated, white boy, who feels compelled by family to live a sort of proper bourgeois life, but wants to rebel, smoke gauloise, watch black and white french films, drink a lot of wine, and womanize.

In fact, let's take Camus.

He just oozes a certain kind of bad ass masculinity. My current student says: "He is so cool." What do these male existentialist writers write about? Do they take on racism (no, with the exception of Sartre in Anti-Semite and Jew). Do they tackle poverty? (n0) Do they tackle sexism or homophobia? (no). What do they write about? Individualism, Self-expression, freedom, atheism and authenticity. What does this translate into?

That I don't have to live up to my parents bourgeois expectations of my life. I don't have to grow up, get a job, pay a mortgage, get married, and pay taxes. That I can be a sort of free spirit (think Michel Poiccard and Breathless). [No one really wants to look like Sartre, but they wouldn't mind getting laid as often as he did!]

The other focus of white male existentialism (you could read Simone de Beauvoir, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Frantz Fanon, Aimee Cesaire, Steve Biko, Lewis Gordon, Cornel West) is liberty. And, the way these writings, particularly Sartre, get translated into the American idiom is a "pull yourself up from your bootstraps" and stop whining way. My father loves existentialism. He also loves Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. What appeals to my dad and the libertarians who love existentialism is a romantic view of the self: the idea that anyone can transcend their dire circumstances and become great.

This sort of narrative appeals, in my view, more often to white boys of a certain class. Maybe it says: look you don't just have to be a provider or a cog in the machine (think Office Space). You can be great. Really great. You can change the rules. Hell, the rules don't even apply to you. What matters is that you are true to yourself, your desires, and your vision.

This, I think, is why existentialism appeals to young intellectuals. I think it appeals to a certain level of cognitive development, i.e. when students stop believing that anyone has the answers and therefore think that there are not answers. In other words, relativism. It also encourages narcissism and egoism.

And, as Steve G has often theorized. Existentialist boys get laid more than the pocket protector analytic types (with comfortable shoes).

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