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The Existentialist’s Survival Guide by Gordon Marino

We get existential as Doug Phillips says you have to keep punching until the final bell.

In one of his more forgettable films (I forget which), Woody Allen relays a joke I’ve never quite forgotten, though it’s hardly a tickler. A prizefighter is taking a royal beating, his nose bloodied, his block about to be knocked off. At the ringside sits his mother, next to a priest. “Pray for him, Father! Pray for him!” she pleads. “I’ll pray for him,” replies the priest, “but if he can punch it’ll help!”

Less a joke perhaps than an existential parable, this pugilistic vignette encapsulates the bob and weave between faith and self-overcoming in The Existentialist’s Survival Guide, Gordon Marino’s seven-round rumination on how best to endure life’s hard right hooks.

A former boxer and current boxing coach, as well as a seasoned professor of philosophy with a taste for all things existential, Marino shares with us a ‘Nietzschean exercise’ (p.174) he uses to train young boxers. He calls it ‘the courage drill’ (p.174) and it’s designed to help fighters overcome their fears of getting hit by conditioning them to stay within striking distance of their opponents, a strategy known as ‘staying in the pocket’ (p.174). The metaphor is one heard too in association with American football quarterbacks, who, if they’re any good, have also learned to stay fearlessly in the pocket, even if it feels counterintuitive. But staying in the pocket, counsels Marino, is a useful and vital strategy for us all, for the young especially whose rates of anxiety and depression and suicide are now so high that a viable defense – in the one-two punch of Kierkegaardian faith and Nietzschean self-overcoming – is critical.

With this two-fisted defense as his guide, Marino uses the first half of his book to repurpose the dark matters of existence – anxiety, depression, despair, death – into the service of self-flourishing. In the second half, he addresses topics less frequently associated with existentialism, but which he believes are also instrumental to eudaimonia or human flourishing: faith, morality, and love. Between these two halves, and central to his book, is a chapter on authenticity, the upshot of which is “becoming your own person” (p.122), though such a project, he acknowledges, is never easy. It means not only learning how to stay in the pocket but understanding why we’re there in the first place. After all, if, as Tolstoy remarks in his Confessions, “the only knowledge attainable by man is that life is absolutely meaningless,” then why bother? And if we do bother – as Samuel Beckett says at the close of The Unnamable “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” – then how are we to bear our situation of endless suffering and uncertainty and absurdity? How, in other words, do we contend with our “esurient desire for meaning pitched into a universe devoid of meaning”? (p.133)

Friedrich Nietzsche believed that if we can find a why, then any how is possible. For him, the why of life had everything to do with self-overcoming, with an increase of power, with a will to power. But a will to power is itself a matter of faith, a ‘will to believe’ in William James’s phrasing. If, for example, “your life depended on needing to leap across a chasm,” writes Marino (borrowing from James), “you would be much more likely to make a successful jump if you believed you could make the jump” (p.129). When we fall into despair, then, it stems always from a lack of belief in whom we might be or what we might achieve. This is a crisis of the self, ranging “from being ignorant of having a self to refusing to become yourself” (p.69, emphasis mine).

As for his own confessed despair, details of which he shares throughout his book, Marino has found solace and strength in the existentialists – Kierkegaard especially. “At the risk of sounding histrionic,” he adds, “there was a time in my life when Kierkegaard grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me back from the crossbeam and rope” (p.3). More than merely a means for assuaging our depression, however, Kierkegaard and other exponents of the existential tradition – Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Pascal, Camus, Cioran – are summoned to help “keep our moral and spiritual bearings when it feels as though we are going under” (p.31). Yet, as Marino indicates in a chapter titled ‘Death’, going under is our ultimate due, if not later then soon. “We can’t stop what’s coming” as a character says in Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men. And life along the way will depress us plenty with its frequent previews of the dark. Wherever we find ourselves – in the ring, on the pitch, the gridiron, classroom, workplace, in our adolescence, or in our senescence – we will be swung at, hit, knocked down, and absolutely schooled in what the poet Elizabeth Bishop calls the art of losing (“it isn’t hard to master,” she assures us). Which is to say everything we’ve ever loved will, in time, go away from us. But our efforts to self-medicate or take a powder from such slings and arrows, while well-intended, are ultimately wrongheaded and self-defeating, thinks Marino. If all else in life is contingent, getting ourselves pummeled, at least on occasion, is certain.

The question then is how best to contend with our outrageous fortune, never mind the heartache, pangs, insolence, spurns, the returns of our own ghostly pasts, and even the proud man’s contumely? Nietzsche – he of the imposing mustache and philosophical stingers – has an answer for this too: live dangerously! “In myriad ways,” writes Marino, “Nietzsche emphasizes the urgent importance of being able to get into the ring with your fears… Rather than shying away from our personal bogeymen, Nietzsche bids us to embrace the trials that tempt us to call in sick, because they are the pathways to becoming who we are” (p.173). Only by way of endurance, of confronting and riding out what’s most difficult, of staying in the pocket, of living – in Nietzsche’s word – dangerously, is there any hope for us. Only then might we become who we are and in so doing achieve something like an authentic life.

Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre by Woodrow Cowher
Image © Woodrow Cowher 2020. Please visit woodrawspictures.com

Authentic Existentialist Living

A corollary of Nietzsche’s prescription for ‘becoming who we are’ is Søren Kierkegaard’s notion of the self as what it is in the process of becoming. It’s Kierkegaard, that other 19th century forefather of existentialism, who serves as the real lodestar to Marino’s study. This makes sense given that among his professional roles, Marino is the director of the Hong Kierkegaard library at St Olaf College, Minnesota. For Marino, knowing Kierkegaard’s work can be a conduit to another, higher kind of life, one of attunement, of getting a grip on what it means to be really alive, rather than to walking lockstep with the living dead.

Rooted as it is in phenomenology, existentialism is above all a philosophy directed toward conscious awareness, toward awareness of one’s freedom always to choose, whether it’s choosing how to act or, at the very least, choosing what to think. For Kierkegaard, it’s also about caring: “No matter how hopeless you might feel, Kierkegaard teaches, you still have a responsibility to reach through the pain and to care for and about others even if you find it hard to care about yourself” (p.232). The first step then toward living authentically in an inauthentic age (as Marino’s subtitle has it) involves guarding oneself against falling into what Heidegger calls ‘the They’, Nietzsche calls the ‘Herd’ and Kierkegaard calls ‘Despair’ – all of which are hiding places for the facile and self-deceiving happiness which can be heard in the herd’s laughter of unease. If, as Marino puts it, “you trust that your task in life is to become an authentic human being, then you will know what you should truly fear – namely, becoming a vacant-eyed, empty suit of an individual” (p.54).

We have even the choice of how to think about our moods, whether of fear, anxiety, or dread. Understood existentially – in the service of life, that is – such moods indicate not only who we are, but who we might become. “Kierkegaard’s existential prescription,” writes Marino, “is that we cultivate these unsettling moods, learn to sit on the couch with our fears” (p.53). Why? Because, says Kierkegaard, “Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate” (p.53). Anxiety – if we really attune ourselves to it, rather than run from it – dislodges us from the They, which “ultimately helps us to secure our identities as authentic individuals separate from the crowd” (p.48). In this way, writes Marino, anxiety “helps us to know ourselves. It informs us that we are beings who have choices, who choose ourselves” (p.44). It’s only when we’re choosing ourselves, when we’re writing our own scripts, that we are at our most authentic.

To imagine, in contrast, a self as fixed or essential or somehow at the core of who we are (as when Polonius advises Laertes “to thine own self be true”) is to risk falling into ‘bad faith’, Sartre’s designation for those little or big lies we tell ourselves to let ourselves off the hook in order to take ourselves more easily. For Kierkegaard, remember, there is only the self which is in the process of becoming. And for Nietzsche too, our best self is yet unrealized, residing high above us where the air is thin, and the climb steep. Getting there won’t be easy.

The Existentialist’s Survival Guide, leavened as it is with memoirish accounts of Marino’s own pain and suffering, might have been aptly subtitled – à la Adorno – Reflections on the Damaged Life. “Clinically speaking,” he tells us at the start, “I am a card carrying depressive” (p.2). But it’s this deeply personal dimension that gives testimony to the promise of his subtitle. This book on how to be authentic is authentically executed in Marino’s hand and voice. This voice of authenticity distinguishes his book from other recent ‘how to’ guides on existentialism, as well as from the ‘lives of’ approach of Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café (2016) and, especially, from academic studies. In support of his opening salvo – “I want this to be an honest book” (p.1) – Marino’s Guide advances with the understanding that existentialism, a philosophy born of experience, is also a lived philosophy. “My aim in this book,” he declares forthrightly, “is to articulate the life-enhancing insights of the existentialists” (p.2), one of whom, it’s fair to say, is himself.

© Doug Phillips 2020

Doug Phillips teaches existential literature and philosophy at the University of St Thomas in St Paul, Minnesota.

The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age, by Gordon Marino, HarperOne, 2018, 260 pages, $25.99

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