Sunday, 21 September 2008

English and the existential abyss

Philosophie Magazine, September issue: The editorial this month explains that they’ve hitherto kept away from thématiques existentielles, out of a fear of appearing to offer trendy nuggets of wisdom. Now they’ve decided they can’t avoid going beyond ‘theoretical thought’ to take on ‘lived thought’.

I like their concluding sentence: ‘L’ambition est de montrer qu’on peut traiter des vertiges existentiels avec des outils différents de ceux de la psychologie.’ Our ambition is to show that existential vertigos (Loss of existential bearings? vertiginous glimpses into the abyss?) can be addressed with other tools than those of psychology.

In my adolescence, one of those tools was literature. Less the literature studied in school than that in circulation in the sixth form, some of it introduced to us by Colin Wilson’s The Outsider (1956), including, I recall, Camus and Dostoevsky. Also Salinger, Sartre (fiction and plays), Beckett and Kerouac, and contemporary French plays put on at Bradford’s amateur Civic Theatre: Anouilh, Giroudoux, Cocteau. Films in a similar vein were shown there, equally powerful in their effect on us.

English, too, like philosophy in French schools, should be addressing, shouldn’t it, young people’s experiences of existential vertigo.

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