The existentialists asked the essential questions and still have much to offer us today. So don your turtleneck and make like Sartre and De Beauvoir
I was a teenage existentialist. I became one at 16 after spending birthday money from my grandmother on Jean-Paul Sartres Nausea . It was the encompas that attracted me, with its Dal painting of a dripping watch and sickly green stone formation, plus a blurb describing him as a novel of the estrangement of personality and the mystery of being. I didnt know what was mysterious about being, or what alienation entailed although I was a perfect example of it at the time. I simply guessed that it would be my kind of book. Indeed it was: I bonded at once with its protagonist Antoine Roquentin, who float around his provincial seaside township look at this place tree trunks and beach pebbles, feeling physical disgust at their sheer blobbish reality, and stimulating scornful remarks about the bourgeoisie. The book inspired me: I played truant from school and tried floating around my own provincial town of Reading. I even went to a park and tried to see the Being of a Tree. I didnt quite glimpse it, but I did decide that I wanted to study philosophy, and especially this strange doctrine of Sartres, which I learned was existentialism.
No one can be completely sure what existentialism is, since its own chief thinkers disagree about its tenets and many of them denied being existentialists at all. Among the few exceptions were the two most well known, Sartre and his companion Simone de Beauvoir, who accepted the label chiefly since they are grew tired of telling people not to call them it.
They ran their philosophy out carefully, but their adherents often treated existentialism more as a style or attitude than a situated of faiths. Several generations of disaffected youngsters before me had sat in coffeehouse with slim volumes of Sartre or Albert Camus on the table in front of them, smoking strong cigarettes from blue packages and talking of nothingness and nervousnes. In the 1940 s, when the existentialist fashions began, the men wore raincoats and plaid shirts, and women let their hair grow long and loose in what one journalist worded the drowning-victim seem. Subsequently, the black woollen turtleneck took over which must have attained everybody severely sweaty in the subterranean jazz clubs of Pariss Left Bank, where they went dancing. By day, they hoped for a sighting of the legendary writers Camus with his movie-star appears, De Beauvoir with her turban and attractively hooded eyes, and Sartre with his pipe, his dumpy kind and his comb-over. Today, the whole scene seems drenched in nostalgia. Meanwhile, existentialist notions about freedom and youthful uprising have become so much a part of popular culture that we barely remember how scandalous they once were.
I am convinced that existentialism should be seen as more than a fad, however, and that it still has something to offer us today. In a spirit of experimentation, here are 10 possible reasons to be an existentialist or at least to read their volumes with a fresh sense of curiosity.