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Scherr, A. (1995). Jean-Paul Sartre'S Quest for Immortality: the Words (Les Mots). Psychoanal. Rev., 82(6):829-857.

(1995). Psychoanalytic Review, 82(6):829-857

Jean-Paul Sartre'S Quest for Immortality: the Words (Les Mots)

Arthur Scherr, Ph.D.

Existential philosophy has exerted a decisive impact on modern thought. Its influence has been felt in literature and psychotherapy as well as philosophy. Psychoanalysts and psychiatrists of such diverse temperaments as Rollo May, D. W. Winnicott, R. D. Laing, and Irvin D. Yalom have extensively used its concepts of Self versus Other, anxiety, despair, and ontological authenticity in their attempts to relieve their patients from the torments of neurosis and psychosis and restore freedom and responsibility to their lives. More orthodox practitioners, among them Abraham Maslow and Carl R. Rogers, formulated their theories on self-realization and autonomy from an Existential base; and many others have been influenced by Existentialism's emphasis on the inevitability of death and its effects on the human condition (May, 1961; Izenberg, 1976; Yalom, 1980). A study of the leading existentialist writers and thinkers takes on additional importance when one considers that it revived the average person's interest in psychology through its concern with human alienation and uprootedness, in sharp contrast to the sterility of behaviorism (Wild, 1955; Barrett, 1958).

Nevertheless, those unsympathetic to Existentialism take issue with its ostensibly pessimistic tone. A leading critic, Sidney Hook (1960), suggests that Existentialism's stress on the absurdity of life as a consequence of human contingency and the irrevocability of death “expresses little more than a fear of death and a craving for immortality.” “It has never been clear to me why those who are nauseated by life, not by this or that kind of life but any kind of life, should be so fearful of death,” he writes (p. 12). A psychoanalytic interpretation of the roots of Existentialism therefore seems warranted.


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