Gordon Marino teaches philosophy at St. Olaf College and curates the Hong Kierkegaard Library. He has spent decades writing about the existentialists. His passion for them did not begin in the classroom, though. After a failed relationship, with derailed careers in both boxing and academic philosophy, a young Marino struggled with suicidal thoughts. While waiting for a counseling session, he spotted a copy of Søren Kierkegaard’s Works of Love on a coffee-shop bookshelf. He opened it to a passage in which Kierkegaard criticizes a “conceited sagacity” that refuses to believe in love. Intrigued, Marino hid Works of Love under his coat on the way out the door. He credits the book with saving his life. “At the risk of seeming histrionic,” Marino writes, “there was a time when Kierkegaard grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me back from the crossbeam and the rope.” In Kierkegaard and other existentialists, Marino found philosophers who wrote in the first person, took moods and emotions seriously, and kept up a staring contest with despair. While these eclectic thinkers often had qualms about the professoriate, they led Marino back to academic philosophy. He returned with an older conception of philosophy as a way of life and a pursuit of wisdom, a conception the existentialists helped renew and one that animates this compelling study of them.
The Existentialist’s Survival Guide provides a brisk thematic survey of existentialism, with chapters on “Anxiety,” “Depression and Despair,” “Death,” “Authenticity,” “Faith,” “Morality,” and “Love.” Marino acknowledges that the existentialist label can imply a false unity. Of the thinkers he discusses, only Jean-Paul Sartre actually called himself an existentialist. Marino’s existentialists share a certain stance and some broad concerns, but they often disagree with each other. He takes Kierkegaard, a nineteenth-century forebear of Sartre and company, as his main philosophical guide, but he also draws insights from Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Simone de Beauvoir, Ralph Ellison, Albert Camus, and Miguel de Unamuno, among others.
Like the existentialists, Marino is not afraid to philosophize in the first person and to write with literary flair. He praises “the sheer ability of these writers to move the waters of language and their engagement with the hurly-burly of real life.” Marino deserves the same praise. He weaves his life story into his survey of existentialism, and he tells this story with hard-hitting candor. Marino had a brief career as a pro boxer, and he has maintained a second career as a boxing coach. He relays anecdotes from both ring and classroom. Boxing heavyweights like Mike Tyson and academic heavyweights like Philip Rieff show up to teach Marino difficult lessons. In the chapter titled “Authenticity,” for instance, he recalls an afternoon walk with Tyson. Marino acted like a fellow “member of the elite fistic brotherhood,” and Tyson seemed to accept him as such, “saying, ‘Guys like you and me…’” Marino recalls: