William (Christopher) Barrett Introduction - Essay

Introduction

William (Christopher) Barrett 1913–

American literary critic, philosopher, and editor.

Barrett, an expert on existentialism and other philosophies and an astute literary critic, is widely known for his affiliations with Partisan Review, the most influential journal of leftist and modernist ideas published in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s. Begun during the 1930s by William Phillips, Philip Rahv, and other anti-Stalinist Marxists, this journal was considered the voice of post-World War II New York intellectuals. Written and edited by such prominent figures as Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Delmore Schwartz, and Lionel Trilling, Partisan Review has been described as the first evidence of "an independent and literate left" in the United States. Its initial program called for Marxism in politics and modernism in the visual arts and literature. Barrett, who served there as an associate editor between the years 1945–1953, was valued especially for his ability to translate the then new and "abstract Continental philosophy into lucid prose." His "What Is Existentialism?," an essay which appeared in Partisan Review in 1947, is among the clearest explanations of that philosophy. Tired of the intense intellectual atmosphere at Partisan Review and increasingly disaffected with the political positions of the magazine's staff, Barrett, who became increasingly conservative as his career progressed, left the publication in the 1950s. He went on to serve as a professor of philosophy at New York University from 1950–1979 and acted as the literary reviewer for the Atlantic Monthly in the 1960s.

Barrett's philosophical views are expressed most clearly in his books Irrational Man (1958), now considered a classic introduction to existential philosophy, and The Illusion of Technique: A Search for Meaning in a Technological Civilisation (1978). In both of these works, Barrett's main thesis is that the greatest threat to modern civilisation and the cause of "the modern malaise of nihilism" is that which he calls "deranged rationality." The source of the phenomenon, in Barrett's view, may be found in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle and the evolution of Greek rationalism. Greek philosophers, who depended on abstract models to explain the world, detached reason from "the mythic, religious, and poetic impulses from which it had formerly been mixed." In doing so, in Barrett's opinion, they began a movement which led toward modern nihilism. Barrett calls for a return to the belief that life, in its mystical and mysterious grandeur, cannot be "enclosed in a completely rational system." He advocates a "new conception of thinking," one that recognizes the limitations of reason in the determination of truth and one that takes into account the "anxieties and dilemmas of ordinary men."

Barrett's philosophical views inform and shape his literary criticism and aesthetic theory. In Time of Need: Forms of Imagination in the Twentieth Century (1972), for example, he examines how the work of twentieth-century literary and visual artists reflect nihilistic tendencies and a burgeoning sense of alienation. An informal survey of works by such artists as Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, and Ernest Hemingway, Time of Need shows Barrett to be sympathetic with those authors whose work gropes beyond the limits of rationalism. Renowned primarily as a philosopher, Barrett's literary criticism is also considered important and relevant to the contemporary reader because of the broad associations it makes between literature, philosophy, and the problems of the modern age.

Barrett's recent work, The Truants: Adventures among the Intellectuals (1982), is both a memoir of his personal and professional relationships with writers at Partisan Review and an examination of New York's intellectual life. Described by some critics as an important contribution to the intellectual history of the twentieth century, The Truants contains portraits of Philip Rahv, Delmore Schwartz, Mary McCarthy, and others.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)