Gordon Marino took his Ph.D. from the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He is currently Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College. He is also a veteran boxing trainer and boxing writer.
Marino’s most recent book, The Existentialist’s Survival Guide, is described by the publisher as follows: “Soren Kierkegaard, Frederick Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and other towering figures of existentialism grasped that human beings are, at heart, moody creatures, susceptible to an array of psychological setbacks, crises of faith, flights of fancy, and other emotional ups and downs. Rather than understanding moods—good and bad alike—as afflictions to be treated with pharmaceuticals, this swashbuckling group of thinkers generally known as existentialists believed that such feelings not only offer enduring lessons about living a life of integrity, but also help us discern an inner spark that can inspire spiritual development and personal transformation…In The Existentialist’s Survival Guide, Gordon Marino…recasts the practical takeaways existentialism offers for the twenty-first century….What emerges are life-altering and, in some cases, lifesaving epiphanies—existential prescriptions for living with integrity, courage, and authenticity in an increasingly chaotic, uncertain, and inauthentic age.”
Why did you feel the need to write this?
I have long been of the opinion that the study of philosophy should be focused on acquiring wisdom more than knowledge. It was, I believe, Seneca who said that if the study of philosophy does not make you a better person than you are wasting your time with it. I have spent much of the last thirty years in the pages of the existentialists and it seemed high time to ask myself, what wisdom have I gained from this motley crew of authors?
Who influenced your work the most?
Søren Kierkegaard. As I explain in the book, I came to Kierkegaard crawling across cut glass, depressed and in dire straits. I am not sure where in his works I found this, but Kierkegaard, a Freud with religious categories up his sleeves, helped me to understand that suffering is something that you can do well or poorly. Until my encounter with Kierkegaard I felt as though the funk I was in was a disease.
Which of your insights do you find most exciting?
Perhaps the idea that while we may not have much choice about our moods and feelings, we do have sway as to how we relate to those feelings. Along those lines and with the help of Kierkegaard, I try to draw a distinction between depression and despair, where depression is a mood and despair a surrendering of oneself to that mood, like running up the white flag on all your moral and spiritual aspirations.
How is your work relevant to everyday life?
It is easy for most people to be decent human beings when all the lights are green. But it is something else again when we have to deal with the golem of troubling emotions. Can we get outside of ourselves and be caring individuals when we are feeling broken? I hope this book offers some wisdom about dealing with the blows that we are all bound to absorb.
Do you see any connection between your professional and personal life?
Everywhere. Contrary to the poses of objectivity, one of my professors once advised me that the best research is “me-search” and by that I believe she meant that our thinking is richest when we are personally invested in the subject of our investigations. As I mentioned, my study of Kierkegaard was tightly tethered to personal issues.
How has your work influenced your teaching?
Highly specialized issues aside, it has always seemed to me that philosophers ought to be able to make their ideas clear to an educated audience. Whether it be my critique of the cult of the expert, or the lessons that we can draw from anxiety, I always run my ideas past my students. If they can’t grasp what I am talking about, I go back to the drawing board.
Also, I have found that in this era of the medicalization of our inner lives, college students hunger for the insights of Galileos of the inner world, such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, and, yes, Freud. They are groping for another vocabulary to think about the world behind their brows.
What are your writing tips?
As a graduate student I used to think that I needed to write 25 drafts of an essay in order for something to be worthy. My mentor in more ways than ten, Professor Philip Rieff, helped cultivate this disease in me. Then, one afternoon, he jolted me with a lecture to the effect that some of the best things we write should come as quickly and easily as a birdsong. And with that, I began something of a side career as a journalist; but it also helped liberate me to write with a little more speed and élan for academic audiences. And for those of us with heavy teaching loads who at the same time are loaded with writing aspirations, it is, I think of supreme importance to carve out and protect some time, if only and hour or two a day, during the academic year. I know from painful experience that this is not easy. And yet, if we don’t do that, then perhaps it reveals something about the depths of our desire to write.
Please know, I am very grateful for these questions and the opportunity to share some of my thoughts.
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The purpose of the Recently Published Book Spotlight is to disseminate information about new scholarship to the field, explore the motivations for authors’ projects, and discuss the potential implications of the books. Our goal is to cover research from a broad array of philosophical areas and perspectives, reflecting the variety of work being done by APA members. If you have a suggestion for the series, please contact us here.