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From the Editor

  A CURE FOR THE COMMON COLDNESS

   Leave it to a Connecticut entity, Yale University Press, to do the heavy lifting when it comes to upholding the ongoing validity of the Enlightenment project.  Since back in colonial times, when the Reverend Ezra Stiles, seventh president of Yale, called for a revolution against Britain in 1765, ten years before Concord and Lexington, Connecticut thinkers and doers have always been in the advance guard of human rights and culture. By publishing a mass-market paperback of Jean-Paul Sartre’s speech “Existentialism is a Humanism” and then seeing to it that it has been distributed to every Barnes and Noble bookstore in the universe, Yale University Press has quietly accomplished one of the signal intellectual and moral acts of recent times.

   People should buy the book, which sells for $9.95, take it to some quiet place, and go straight to Sartre’s speech, which takes up 36 of the book’s 101 pages. The rest of the material is fine, and you can come back to it later. You can call this speech the Gettysburg Address of existentialism. Sartre gave it to a jam-packed public hall in Paris on October 29, 1945. The war had just ended, and one question was on French minds, across every strata of society: Where do we go from here? Existentialism, instead of emerging as a logical philosophy that generated attitudes, came to the forefront as an attitude that generated its own logic. It had some support in academia, but its tremendous impact on the general public was the result of the novels and plays of a former high school teacher, Sartre, and a former automotive-parts clerk named Albert Camus.

   The establishment types–and all they were at the end of the war, lacking any establishment, were types–dismissed existentialism as narcissism, and, really, who can blame them?  Titles like Nausea and Dirty Hands, and lines like “Hell is other people,” taken out of context, didn’t seem to point to anything but despair. If you paid close attention to the novels and the plays, you soon understood they were shrewdly upbeat. Sartre saw that he had a job on his hands. He had to stop the critics before they ridiculed him off history’s stage. He had to convince the world that existentialism had not, as he put it, “forgotten the innocence of a child's smile.” I won’t attempt to summarize Sartre’s speech. If you haven’t read it, do so and find out why at the end of the speech the audience, cheering, carried Sartre on their shoulders through the streets of Paris


                                               Max H. Peters

 

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