Philosopher in the Ring

‘The Existentialist’s Survival Guide’
George Bellows, A Knock-Out, 1921 (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston / Google Art Project)

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:

I suppose I had pulled the charade off, or Iron Mike let me think I had pulled it off, but I immediately felt that body blow of inauthenticity. I had managed to wrap myself in borrowed clothes, and though I did not correct Tyson, I felt like the not-so-great imposter. Camus again: if you want to be authentic, “don’t try to seem.” But some of us who might not be so at home in our skin will have to try “to try not to seem.”

In the chapter on “Love,” Marino recalls visiting Rieff’s office in graduate school to tell his teacher that he had placed an essay in a prestigious journal. After brief congratulations, Rieff chastised Marino for not “progressing as much as he would have liked. He ended our meeting with a hand on my shoulder and a stern look in the eye, ‘Gordon, if you really care about your students, you will tell them the messy truths, even if it makes them angry.’” 

Throughout The Existentialist’s Survival Guide, Marino tells how Kierkegaard helped his lifelong struggle with depression. Marino responded to Kierkegaard’s exhortation to push through the fog of depression in order to care for others. He learned from the chronically melancholic Dane to transform paralyzing thoughts of death into a sense of urgency: “At the risk of being pedantic, the Kierkegaardian understanding of death might be this: don’t be careless with the people you walk through life with. Don’t have arguments and leave them unsettled.” Kierkegaard showed Marino how to draw a distinction between depression and despair, and how to guard against the former becoming the latter. Marino discovered through Kierkegaard that anxiety can “prod us to trust in God, or if God raises your hackles, trust in the idea that we weren’t put on this earth just to play golf and sip martinis on the beach.” 

Marino thinks these are particularly timely insights. He does not dismiss pharmaceutical advances in mental-health treatments and recognizes that they have brought lifesaving relief for many. But for others, including Marino, medicine has not provided a full or lasting solution. Marino thinks there is a danger in reducing all depression and anxiety to “neurochemical squalls.” We end up brushing away existential concern, for instance, about the loss of loved ones or our own death. The existentialists, as well as counselors they influenced, helped Marino cope with and at times even learn from his depression. Marino calls for a renewed, non-reductive approach to depression and anxiety—the kind of approach we find in the existentialists at their best—to complement pharmaceutical advances. 

Lessons from the ring come to the fore late in the book. Courage does not receive its own chapter, but Marino presents it as a necessary virtue in a harsh world. He explains that apprentice boxers often struggle to stay close to their sparring partners. They flinch away from the punches, inadvertently opening themselves to harder blows. As a coach, Marino stands

behind the person on defense so that he or she cannot step out of the pocket. When they fall back I don’t hesitate to scold, “Come on, be brave!” And if my boxer happens to be one of my philosophy students, I might even add a snarky Nietzschean invocation, “Come on—live dangerously!”

Still, Marino champions no vulgar will-to-power. Nor is his love of boxing uncritical. The ring can give rise to a brazen sense of superiority and a propensity to quick violence. Yet it can also teach one to manage anger and anxiety and to be vulnerable with others. Indeed, Marino’s memoir suggests that Kierkegaard helped him develop from the former sort of boxer into the latter.

The ring can give rise to a brazen sense of superiority and a propensity to quick violence. Yet it can also teach one to manage anger and anxiety and to be vulnerable with others.

Marino insists throughout that we need not only courage and toughness but also love and tenderness. These virtues are not opposed to each other. It takes courage to set aside one’s own needs in order to care for others, and it also takes courage to open oneself to love, especially the kind of love that accepts one’s flaws. Marino sees a prideful, vicious rejection of such love in Dostoevsky’s “underground man.” He claims that “one of the messages in this brutal book seems to be that pride impedes our ability to accept Christ’s love and forgiveness.” With characteristic candor, Marino shares times when he was himself an “underground man.” Still, his love for family, friends, and students is palpable throughout the book, as is his gratitude for those who have given him the gift of love—some of them strangers. He recalls a time when he was hospitalized for depression. A fellow patient, herself hospitalized for a suicide attempt, would bring him “a cup of coffee in the morning and offer encouraging words. She could reach through her pain.” She helped him through his crisis, and she provided a model of love to which he could aspire. 

In the concluding chapter, Marino returns to Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, the book that saved him as a young man. Kierkegaard presents love as a duty and insists “that we are [also] duty bound to presuppose an essential ability to love in everyone, not only in people we feel simpatico toward but also in those whom we cut across the street to avoid.” Marino points to how “everyday people frequently lay down their lives for others, often strangers.” He convincingly argues that Kierkegaard’s dutiful love is too dismissive of tender feelings. In the end, though, he sides with the Christian existentialism of Kierkegaard against the skepticism of love in Nietzsche and Sartre. (Other religious existentialists—Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel, Martin Luther King Jr.—could have come to his aid.) Marino thinks we can learn much from the Nietzschean suspicion of motives, but he, like Kierkegaard, ultimately turns such suspicion around:

You can always construct an explanation that seems to unmask the selfish aims behind supreme acts of love and self-sacrifice. Perhaps the most attractive aspect of the claim that there are no unselfish actions is that they conveniently free us from feeling duty bound to take a few steps along the same path.

Love may open up a deeper freedom, the courage to risk oneself for something that transcends narrow self-interest. Marino’s study ultimately offers an existentialist reworking of an old Gospel lesson: to save our lives we might need to risk them in love.

The Existentialist’s Survival Guide
How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age

Gordon Marino
HarperOne, $25.99, 272 pp.

Published in the January 2020 issue: 

Steven Knepper is assistant professor of English at Virginia Military Institute.

Also by this author
From Problem to Mystery

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Collections