UPDATE (May 27, 2011): First, Oprah was an existentialist. Now the Washington Post reports, "She is America’s high priestess" and "a true religious leader". Hmmm. I felt a bit more comfortable with her being an existentialist...
Far be it for me to criticize sycophants and groupies, fans and stalkers; they are, after all, what keep me going in this glitzy, heady game of blogging and opining. I live for their attention, adoration, fan mail, hate mail, and grammatically-challenged screeds in the combox. As I say so often, "If it weren't for my fans, my humility would not as awesomely modest as it could be and will be." (That's a copyrighted slogan, by the way, so keep your cutting-and-pasting to yourself.)
But, really, isn't the following a bit much, especially in the pages of a somewhat well-known, established newspaper?
With Oprah’s legendary talk-show career ending today, we should celebrate her unparalleled influence as a healer, visionary, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. Well, I would like to bestow upon Oprah a new distinction: Oprah the existentialist.
Huh. Well, what do you expect in the "Letters to the Editor of the Lifestyle and Celebrity-Obsessed Section"? Wait a second. That was the opening line of an opinion piece, "Oprah Winfrey: The greatest existential philosopher ever?" (Christian Science Monitor, May 25, 2011), by a man who has a PhD in sociology from Northwestern University and is an associate professor of Sociology at the University of Houston. So now I'm confused: do/did men really watch "Oprah"? By "watch", I mean for a full hour of every day it was on? They did?? Who knew? But I am digressing, as well rudely interrupting an Oprahites' touching, piognant, and bittersweet Ode to the "O":
For many of you, the word existentialist conjures up a creepy concoction of Friedrich Nietzsche’s ramblings on God’s death, Martin Heidegger’s hermeneutics, Albert Camus’s absurdity, and Jean-Paul Sartre's insistence that existence precedes essence. Sigh!
Fair enough. Oprah is not an existentialist in the classic sense of the term. And yes, she does deviate from Nietzsche, Heidegger, Camus, and Sartre in ways too numerous to list. But Oprah also shares much in common with them, namely a career-long excavation down the deep and dark crevices of the human soul.
I'm no fan of Nietzsche's atheistic nastines or Sartre's smug arrogance, but let's not confuse being disagreeable and wrong with "creepy" (okay, okay, so those men were creepy; but I don't think that means their ideas were "creepy"). Besides, I happen to think that that both Nietzsche and Camus were incredibly talented writers (I've not read as much by Heidegger or Sartre). But do you know what is creepy? Fawning like a smitten schoolboy about Oprah conducting excavations down in the deep and dark crevices of the human soul. That is creepy. And this is nauseating:
Her celebrity guests, book club inductees, ”hookups,” and numerous selected themes help us tap into our limitless capacity for growth and change.
The breadth of Oprah's personal talent and the scope of her intellectual reach enlist us to ferret the deep-seated metaphor lurking at the surface of our core being. She helps us to conquer a clearer vision of our purpose and potential.
Oprah teaches us that the human project, our fear-driven, love-seeking undertaking, is always up for editing, elevation, and enlightenment. She shines a florescent radiance on our fragility. But she always harks back to that fact that no matter how low we go or how much we unravel, if we open our minds for discovery, then recovery and reclamation are always within reach.
Wow. If you thought I was uncharitable for saying the author is an "Oprahite", I do hereby accept your formal apology. To his credit, he displays his advanced discipleship credentials with a certain virtuosity that is not hampered by the usual limits of grammar, meaning, and sobriety. I, for one, was not aware that we could "conquer a clearer vision of our purpose and potential", but that's probably because I've not had Oprah shining her "florescent radiance" on my "fragility". (To be perfectly frannk, you must keep your hands off my fragility. Seriously. Step back. Way back.) What this escatic burst of telefused mysticism lacks in specifics and meaning, it makes up for in, uh, Oprahisms.
Seriously, this sort of New Agey, narcissistic, navel-gazing blather would be hilarious if it weren't so depressing. But we shouldn't be depressed, we read, because Oprah has been carrying high the banner of existential heroine, and now wishes to pass it on to the millions in TV Land who have plumbed the depths, clapped on cue, and cheered the ratings:
In short, what Oprah shares with the great existentialists is an indomitable pursuit of two fundamental questions: Who are we? What can we become? And she has shed light on the possibility for a far more hopeful, productive answer to these questions than our traditional existential heroes.
I don't disagree that the two questions above can be described as "existentialist". Fair enough. Existentialism, after all, is a difficult thing to define, something like the constant reference made by athletes to "playing with energy": it's easy to say repeatedly, but defining and qualifying it is another matter. The great Fr. Frederick Copleston, S.J., in his book, Contemporary Philosophy (Newman Press, 1963), wrote, "It seems to me very difficult ... to find any set of clearly defined propositions or theses which will serve to mark off existentialism from all other forms of philosophy." He later notes that existentialism can be understood as being "primarily concerned with man", but with various qualifications. One of those is that for existentialists "the primary datum is man-in-the-world and not the self-enclosed ego of Descartes."
Copleston notes that Gabriel Marcel, a convert to Catholicism who initially accepted the descriptive "existentialist" but later rejected it, focused on "the primary fact of incarnation, embodiment" and concentrated "on those spiritual activities of man such as hope and love and fidelity which involved the relationship of person to person and reveal the subject as essentially 'open,' not self-enclosed." (Which could serve well as a description of the philosophical work of Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II, who used both Thomistic and phenomelogical methods in his philosophical projects.) Kierkegaard, who is accepted by many as the father of existentialism (at least "modern existentialism"), was a Protestant, of course, and focused on issues such as free will, faith, and choice. And Copleston notes that, in general, it can be said that existentialism, in modern forms at least, features the "recurrent protest of the free individual against all that threatens or seems to threaten his unique position as an ex-sistent subject, that is to say, as a free subject who, though a being in the world and so part of nature, at the same time stands out from the background of nature." It is, in other words, a rejection of man as an object, as a "thing" in a meaningless cosmos.
It may be that Oprah holds to these basic beliefs in some way. But if she is an "existentialist" in any sense at all, it is at the most base level, what might be called (cringingly, I admit), "pop existentialism". But I am more inclined to interpret Oprah's messages and influence as a late-20th-century amalgam of pop psychology, self-helpism, vague spirituality (with many features of the equally vague "New Age" movement), and cult of personality-ism. And the latter, while very much oriented toward Oprah, is also oriented toward Oprah's many disciples, for they were constantly encouraged by Oprah to love themselves, believe in themselves, etc., to the point that they were, I think, essentially told to worship themselves. (For some good insight into all of this, see the April 2002 Christianity Today article, "The Church of O".) Oprah may, on a superficial level, provide a "more hopeful, productive answer" to the most difficult questions, but it is an emotionally-loaded, subjective, self-centered, self-adulating, and mostly amoral answer that is not philosophically rigorous, intellectually substantive, or theologically satisfying. (Hey, don't get mad at me if this seems too harsh; I'm just actualizing my inner critic, etc.!)
Is Oprah an existentialist? If so, I say she cannot begin to rank among the truly great existentialists, no matter how much I might dislike their beliefs or disagree with their positions. Consider some of the possible candidates, allowing for a wide definition: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Hesse, Heidegger, Marcel, Jaspers, Barth, Kafka, Camus, Sartre, Berdyaev, Buber, and Maritain. Marcel and Maritain, of course, are Catholic, and I like much of their work, but it's not really evident how truly "existentialist" their thinking is. And there is the whole matter of existentialism being dominated, at least in the 20th century, by atheistic thinkers, which is why Pope Pius XII warned against it so strongly in Humani Generis (1950). Personally, I think Walker Percy comes the closest to being a true Catholic existentialist. But that will have to wait until next time. "Dr. Phil" is on, and I can't miss it.