William (Christopher) Barrett

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Convinced that modern academic philosophy has largely given up on its responsibility to pursue the meaning of human life or even to ask the questions most vital to man, philosopher William Barrett [in Time of Need: Forms of Imagination in the Twentieth Century] turns to the testimony of modern art for a schema of the human condition. His choice of artists is wide and varied, ranging from Camus and Hemingway to sculptor Henry Moore and director Stanley Kubrick. The prevalent theme is, of course, nihilism and the struggle of major artists to express the plight of man alone in a universe bereft of meaning and value. The author's approach is leisurely and informal, more the result of his "haphazard reading and looking" than an attempt at formal literary or artistic explication. In short, we are here in the company of a highly intelligent guide as he searches among his favorite writers, painters and sculptors for "a truth valid for all of us."

Obviously this truth is hard-won and elusive, and much of the author's concern is to detail the "negative" vision of modern literature. Tracing the evolution of nihilism in literature from the 19th-century Russian novelists who, he says, were fascinated by lonely "abnormal figures" acting out their rebellion within an acceptable universe, to the heroes of Camus, Beckett and Hemingway who find themselves in a world no longer rational or acceptable, Barrett finds the dominant mood to be unflinching pessimism. (pp. 156-57)

This sounds familiar, of course, and if the author were content simply to rework the analyses of other critics his book would remain redundant and unnecessary. But there is another "positive" dimension of modern literature, he reminds us, and it is in exploring this "reaction to the ominous drift of our time" that the author is most challenging. This dimension is difficult to define explicitly, but one might say that it is an occasional awareness of "the presence of mystery" in the universe, a feeling on the part of characters that somehow they "belong to something cosmic that is not of man and not of men,… but toward which in the deepest part of themselves they can never feel alien."…

Clearly the author is in sympathy with those writers who would go beyond the limits of rationalism and despair toward faith in the vital primal forces of life itself. To some readers his vision may appear to be another type of romantic and optimistic irrationalism. And yet it is founded on a just assessment of the most negative writers of the century. "In the end," he says, "the answer to nihilism is not intellectual but vital." Here is an excellent sourcebook for those rare intimations of harmony and meaning that have surfaced in twentieth-century art and literature. (p. 157)

John V. McDonnell, in a review of "Time of Need: Forms of Imagination in the Twentieth Century," in America (reprinted with permission of America Press, Inc.; © 1972; all rights reserved), Vol. 127, No. 6, September 9, 1972, pp. 156-57.

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