Self-Encounter: The 10-Episode TV Show That Introduced Existentialism to Americans in 1961

“Existentialism is both a philosophy and a mood,” says Hazel Barnes by way of opening the television series Self-Encounter: A Study in Existentialism. “As a mood, I think we could say that it is the mood of the twentieth century — or, at least, of those people in the twentieth century who are discontent with things as they are. It expresses the feeling that, somehow or other, all of those systems — whether they be social, psychological, or scientific — which have attempted to define and explain and determine man, have somehow missed the living individual person.”

Existentialism was on the rise in 1961, when Barnes spoke those words, and the subsequent six decades have arguably done little to assuage its discontent. By the time of Self-Encounter‘s broadcast in ’61, Barnes was already well-known in philosophical circles for her English translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. When she took on that job, with what she later described as “three years of badly taught high school French and one yearlong course in college, and a bare minimum of background in philosophy,” she couldn’t have known that it would set her on the road to becoming the most famous popularizer of existentialism in America.

Five years after the publication of Barnes’ Sartre translation, along came the opportunity to host a ten-part series on National Public Educational Television (a predecessor of PBS) explaining Sartre’s thought as well as that of other writers like Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Richard Wright, between dramatizations of scenes drawn from existentialist literature. Self-Encounter was once “thought to be entirely lost, the original tapes having been reported recorded over,” writes Nick Nielsen. But after the series’ unexpected rediscovery in 2017, all of its episodes gradually made their way to the web. You can watch all ten of them straight through in the nearly five-hour video at the top of the post, or view them one-by-one at the American Archive of Public Broadcasting.

Self Encounter was produced in 1961 and first broadcast in 1962,” Nielsen writes. “I cannot help but note that Route 66 aired from 1960 to 1964, The Outer Limits aired from 1963 to 1965, Rawhide aired from 1959 to 1965, and Perry Mason aired from 1957 to 1966″ — not to mention The Twilight Zone, from 1959 to 1964. “It would be difficult to name another television milieu of comparable depth. Our mental image of this period of American history as being one of stifling conformity is belied by these dark perspectives on human nature.” And as for the social, psychological, scientific, and of course technological systems in effect today, the existentialists would surely take a dim view of their potential to liberate us from conformity — or any other aspect of the human condition.

Related content:

A Crash Course in Existentialism: A Short Introduction to Jean-Paul Sartre & Finding Meaning in a Meaningless World

Existentialism with Hubert Dreyfus: Five Free Philosophy Courses

An Animated Introduction to Albert Camus’ Existentialism, a Philosophy Making a Comeback in Our Dysfunctional Times

The Philosophy of Kierkegaard, the First Existentialist Philosopher, Revisited in 1984 Documentary

An Animated Introduction to the Existentialist Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre… and How It Can Open Our Eyes to Life’s Possibilities

Existential Philosophy of Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus Explained with 8-Bit Video Games

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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