EXISTENTIAL AMERICA

By George Cotkin

Johns Hopkins Univ. 359 pp. $39.95

WHAT SHOULD I DO WITH MY LIFE?

The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question

By Po Bronson

Random House. 370 pp. $24.95

There are moments in a person's life, one reads in the novels, plays and philosophical manifestos of certain writers and thinkers, when one becomes lucidly aware that each and every one of us is free to believe, to do and to be anything. A partial list of writers who specialized in depicting such moments includes Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Rilke, Kafka, Jaspers, Heidegger, Sartre and Camus -- to name only those featured in Walter Kaufmann's seminal 1956 collection Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre.

The upside of such a realization, according to George Cotkin, who teaches history at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, is "the freeing from the shackles of tradition, the possibility of a more authentic existence, and the headiness that comes with the freedom to create and to be creative." But the downside is existential vertigo, as those of us born in the 1960s learned the hard way -- I mean, by watching bad existential-sploitation films like The Subterraneans (1960, starring George Peppard!) late at night on TV while our parents were upstairs arguing about school desegregation and Maslovian peak experiences. As Cotkin puts it, "To be existential is to have those dark nights of the soul when the loneliness of existence becomes transparent and the structure of our confidence lies shattered around us." In other words, my friends, a bummer that no amount of Xanax can ever remedy.

Shortly after the end of World War II, French existentialism, with its unfamiliar vocabulary of anguish, contingency, absurdity and despair, arrived in the United States. Unfamiliar, because -- as the freelance philosopher Marjorie Grene sniffed in her 1948 book Dreadful Freedom -- America is a land of innocence and possibility; we Americans are simply too shallow to recognize the meaninglessness of our lives. Two years later, Sartre gave this diagnosis a sociopolitical spin when he disparagingly remarked that "There is no pessimism in America regarding human nature and social organization." Americans, it seems, are too gung-ho about the boundless possibilities of social and moral progress ever to be able to experience the transcendental giddiness, not to mention the profound nausea, of existential freedom.

Not so, insists Cotkin, who claims that existential considerations weren't an export to the United States. He gestures toward "darker and deeper elements in the history of the American mind and spirit" that were evident in the writings of such American figures as the Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards, who refused to offer spiritual succor to his congregation, and the novelist James M. Cain, whose disaffected literary style was copped by Camus for his breakthrough 1942 novel, The Stranger. Between these unlikely bookends, readers of Existential America will find a long litany of spiritual malcontents in America, including Herman Melville, who has the narrator of Moby-Dick complain of "a damp, drizzly November in my soul," Oliver Wendell Holmes, with his post-Civil War creed of "noble nihilism," and William James, who famously embraced the "booming, buzzing confusion" of the universe.

This galloping historical survey takes up but one chapter of Existential America, and that's a good thing, because it's the least interesting or convincing part of the book. The figures Cotkin touches upon in this chapter can be considered "existential thinkers" only in the loosest sense of that phrase. Although Cotkin admits that existentialism isn't the same thing as pragmatism or antinomianism, he nevertheless asks the reader to think of every 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century American thinker and writer who recognized and revolted against his or her meaningless life, or who challenged the moribund religious and political givens of his or her time, or who was afflicted with a morbid or tragic outlook on life, as a proto-existentialist. This is tantamount to naming every single talented artist or thinker who's ever lived an existentialist, as Cotkin seems to do when he notes that "existential themes are, of necessity, present in all art and thought that aspires to greatness and depth." The e-word, in this context, simply means "heavy."

Where Cotkin excels is in tracing the reception, in these optimistic, practical, can-do United States, of those European ideas and art forms that have mounted a challenge to our received worldview. Cotkin's previous book, a thoroughgoing if somewhat abbreviated intellectual and cultural history of "reluctant modernism" in America, did this very well indeed. So does the rest of Existential America, which examines the reception of first Kierkegaard and later the French existentialists both by the American public in general and by certain American intellectuals and activists in particular -- including Thornton Wilder, Walker Percy, Harold Rosenberg, Dwight Macdonald, Whittaker Chambers, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Ralph Ellison, Norman Mailer, Robert Frank, Betty Friedan and civil rights activist Robert Moses. In these chapters, Cotkin is far more judicious in his approach; having made the case that Americans aren't inherently impervious to existentialist notions, he permits readers to draw their own conclusions about existentialism in America.

This reader concluded that, although a handful of Americans over the past three centuries may have managed to recognize that the universe is without order or logic, and although some of these courageous men and women have even managed to overcome the self-loathing, despair and alienation that can so easily come with this insight, very few indeed have accepted responsibility for creating their own worlds anew. It's far too easy to become "chastened," to use a favorite term of Cotkin's, to pride oneself on being a hard-boiled grown-up without illusions, much as the manfully self-regarding Cold War liberals Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and William Barrett -- each of whom credited thinkers such as Kierkegaard or Camus with having helped him renounce utopian fantasies -- did in the 1940s and '50s. What this means, in classically American practical terms, is getting with the program.

But don't take my word for it. Po Bronson, the journalist who perhaps more than anyone else helped pump hot air into the utopian fantasy called the New Economy a few years ago with his book The Nudist on the Late Shift (and later publicly apologized for doing so), has spent the last couple of years criss-crossing the United States, interviewing scores of men and women who once worked in the Clinton White House, or on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley or in dot-com startups from New York to San Francisco. (His generation may not have lived through a depression or a world war, he says, but they had arrived at a moment "when we were losing respect for corporate leaders, we no longer believed new technology would make our lives better, and the attack on our freedom made life precious and weighty.") Bronson may not have been to the abyss himself, but he's talked to those who have, which is why his latest book, according to a press release penned by a vice president and senior editor at Random House, "will give direction to anyone who has ever asked: What Should I Do with My Life?"

Bronson would like readers to believe that his book is deeper, more existential than a book about, say, career coaching, but it simply isn't. Like Audrey Hepburn, who plays a bohemian book clerk enamored of a philosophy called empatheticalism in the 1956 film "Funny Face," he has discovered that the true meaning of life is -- yep, you guessed it -- getting with the program. If you've suddenly realized that your high-powered job as a surgeon, a corporate lawyer, an investment banker or a dot-commer isn't fulfilling, there's no need to freak out. Quit your job -- or, as Bronson puts it at one point, take a "gripless open-handed jump into the void," as though the void were nothing but life off the career track -- and get a job you like better. Bronson, himself a former bond salesman, pats himself on the back early on in the book for helping one young man realize that what he really, really wanted was to become a golf pro; and he is proud of a friend who resigned his position as a vice president at Wells Fargo, drifted for a while, then ended up as a highly paid portfolio manager in the United Arab Emirates.

In the end, Bronson sums up what he has learned, not for the sake of the average reader, but for a group of CEOs "from some of the biggest companies in the country. Together, they pretty much are the economy." He's been invited to speak to these folks about What People Really Want, we learn in the book's final chapter; although he's nervous, he thinks it's a great opportunity to speak truth to power. When it's his turn to speak, he tells the assembled head honchos that most people don't care so much about benefits, flex time, day care or stock options. "We need to encourage people to find their sweet spot," he says. "Productivity explodes when people love what they do. We're sitting on a huge potential boom in productivity, which we could tap into if we got all the square pegs in the square holes and round pegs in round holes." This, apparently, is what life is really all about: improving productivity. If you don't love the job you've got, get a job you'll love. This is existentialism, American style. *

Joshua Glenn is associate editor of the Boston Globe's Ideas section and editor of the journal Hermenaut.