Even though I started college as a philosophy major, I am of no use at all when it comes to figuring out why existential is so often put to work to characterize the troubles of our time. As a college student, before I could take the course where I would confront existentialism and demand to know its meaning, I had been soundly defeated: Immanuel Kant and George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel had quickly sent me off to petition for refugee status in the history department.
And yet, somehow or other, I conjured up the impression that existentialism was a no-holds-barred confrontation between human beings and a universe that didn’t think much of them.
This impression has led me to believe that an existential crisis is much more serious than a not-so-existential crisis. The difference seemed stark: the not-so-existential crisis might submit to problem-solving, but an existential crisis would dig in and hold its ground.
And yet a memorable experience I had twenty years ago makes me wonder if I have this right.
Hazel Barnes was one of the most accomplished intellectuals of the twentieth century, and her thirty-five years of teaching at the University of Colorado continue to enhance the standing and prestige of every degree that CU awards. As the translator of Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and as the author of several widely noted books, Professor Barnes was the key figure in introducing existentialism to the United States, and in introducing the United States to existentialism.
In 2001, I had the great honor of receiving the University of Colorado’s Hazel Barnes Prize for teaching and research. When I won the prize named in her honor, our mutual friends Bill and Valorie Mooney did me the great favor of arranging an evening in which I could spend several hours in her company (and theirs!).
Heading into that evening in 2001, this was what I thought I knew about existentialism: it does not pull its punches in assessing the grimness of the human condition. Existentialism refuses to comply with the desire to escape or evade the precarious and grim terms of our placement on this earth. Existentialism leaves us unguarded against our weakness, our impotence, and our mortality.
Well, that’s what I thought.
Early in the memorable evening that the Mooney’s hosted, Hazel Barnes told us that she had recently read The Legacy of Conquest, my attempt to revitalize and reorient the field of Western American history. As we all awaited her next words, I braced myself to hear an existentialist philosopher point out the ways that my book demonstrated my naivete, my brittle innocence, and my refusal to confront the starkness of the human condition.
Well, that didn’t happen.
Instead, the existentialist philosopher told us that she had found my portrayal of U.S. westward expansion to be far too gloomy, grim, disillusioning, and cynical.
And so, friends, associates, and affiliates of the Center of the American West, if you are frustrated because everyone keeps telling you that you are having an existential crisis, but no one will tell you what that term means, don’t come crying to me.
But you could join me in seeking out a copy of Hazel Barnes’s 1998 book, The Story I Tell Myself: A Venture in Existentialist Autobiography. With that book in our hands, we will be the first citizens of our nation to figure out what an existential crisis really is! And once we have that pinned down, we’ll be set to lead the quest for an existential solution, an existential remedy, an existential antidote, and even something so pedestrian as an existential policy recommendation.
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