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Sarah Bakewell Wants Us to Become Existentialists (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) April 22, 2016: As progressives and liberals know, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who has held elective political office for about a quarter of a century (i.e., in the establishment), has inveighed against the establishment in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.

For those of us who are old enough to remember the 1960s, his inveighing against the establishment is reminiscent of inveighing against the establishment in the 1960s.

Now, in the book Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of the Eighties (2006), Philip Jenkins details how conservatives shrewdly used anti-60s rhetoric to attract voters to the Republican Party.

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However, in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, Donald J. Trump, the developer from New York, also inveighs against the establishment.

Thus far in the presidential primaries, it appears to be popular to inveigh against the establishment -- and to characterize one's opponent as representing the establishment -- and to present oneself as an outsider over against the insiders in the establishment.

But there do not appear to be any self-described establishment candidates. When candidates describe themselves, they chose other ways to characterize their own respective political leanings.

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Now, Grace Elizabeth Hale show why this way of presenting oneself in the political arena is appealing in her book A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America (2011) -- we white Americans today tend to imagine ourselves as a nation of outsiders.

Historically, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs), and lapsed Protestants, dominated the prestige culture in American culture.

Our American heritage of white supremacy required Americans of color to imagine themselves as outsiders.

But the postwar way of imagining oneself as an outsider in white American culture was cultivated and popularized in the twentieth century by certain white European existentialists and their white American followers.

For example, from the 1950s onward until he retired from teaching in the 1980s, the American Jesuit cultural historian and theorist Walter J. Ong (1912-2003), who had lived in Paris for three full years in the early 1950s, taught an upper-division honors course on Existentialist Literature at Saint Louis University (SLU), the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri. Ong characterized his work as phenomenological and personalist in cast.

I have honored both aspects of Ong's characterization of his thought in the subtitle of my book Walter Ong's Contributions to Cultural Studies: The Phenomenology of the word and I-Thou Communication (2nd edition, 2015). Also see my essay "Understanding Ong's Philosophical Thought""

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In addition, James Collins (1917-1985) in philosophy at SLU published the books The Existentialists: A Critical Study (1952) and The Mind of Kierkegaard (1965).

The Danish Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) and the German atheistic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) are considered to be nineteenth-century precursors of twentieth-century existentialism, as is the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881).

In my undergraduate studies at SLU (class of '66), I studied the existentialists in a couple of courses.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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