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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