Self-Encounter: A Study in Existentialism

Hazel Barnes, who translated the whole of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness into English, also presented a ten part (thirty minutes per episode) television series for National Public Educational Television called Self Encounter: A Study in Existentialism. I first read about this in Barnes’ autobiography, The Story I Tell Myself, and I later wrote about it in Documentaries Worth Watching in 2010.

At the time I first wrote about it this series was thought to be entirely lost, the original tapes having been reported recorded over.

“A large number of people wrote in to ask if tapes could be purchased for private or group use… I don’t know what the national office, to whom I referred everyone, responded. In the years following the telecasts, I received enough requests so that I myself made an inquiry, only to learn that the tapes had been destroyed.” (Hazel Barnes, The Story I Tell Myself, p. 168)

I subsequently corresponded with several individuals about the series, and in 2017 I learned that the series had been rediscovered, and a copy was being held at the University of Colorado Library at Boulder. I also corresponded with the library and asked about arrangements for viewing their copy of the series. I had planned to travel to Boulder at some point in time and watch the entire series at the library.

I was pleasantly surprised to notice only a few days ago that at least the first four episodes of the series are available on Youtube, some on the Andrew D. Chapman Youtube channel and some on the Philosophy Overdose Youtube channel:

I suspect that the remainder of the series will eventually be made available, given that these episodes have found their own onto Youtube. My plan to make a philosophical pilgrimage to see the series is now unlikely, as I can now watch at least part of the series at my leisure. (Though there is something strangely satisfying about a philosophical pilgrimage, whether to see a rare book or to visit a philosopher’s grave and former home.)

Self-Encounter was very much a product of its time, and, to invoke an existentialist theme, in virtue of this situatedness it possesses a distinctive authenticity — if a television broadcast could be said to possess a distinctive mode of being-in-the-world, then Self-Encounter certainly has this. Barnes, of course, knows Sartre better than most, so her presentation does not skimp on theory, although the theory is regularly relieved by excerpts from plays and novels, which dramatize the existentialist themes in a powerful way. We should not be surprised that existentialism was the force that is was in post-war Europe, given the literary resources that were expended on it.

Self Encounter was produced in 1961 and first broadcast in 1962. 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. 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.



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