This was a while ago. Back in 1963 or so in East County, San Diego. I found Dostoevsky in the public library. Notes from the underground esp. confused me, and somehow I must have stumbled on the word existentialism because I started reading Nietzsche (though I didn’t understand him at that time; I was a sophomore in high school). Also Sartre, Nausea, and some other stuff, and I tried to read Kierkegaard. When I couldn’t understand it, I started reading commentary by a Hazel Barnes and Walter Kaufman. My parents drove me to college with me clutching Kaufman’s from Shakespeare to Sartre in my sweaty hand.
There’s nobody in my high school to whom I could talk about being a teenage existentialist. It was a working class high school. We didn’t read any of that stuff. And I wouldn’t have talked with my parents even if they had been interested in my emotional states, which they weren’t being utterly self involved in their own emotional imbalances. One guy I knew had read Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, and sort of knew what I was into, though he was into transcendental philosophy and wanted to go to India to see people levitate.
I was told one day that I have selected by somebody to participate in a national writing contest for high school seniors. Big deal. I would have to stay after class all alone in a classroom and write a time essay. So I did. The question was really abstract maybe about humanities relation to nature or something; I remember thinking, hey, I can write about this! And started pouring out existentialism. About how human beings were unnatural creatures, a sort of overflow, or excess, a kind of fungus spreading without control over the face of the earth to eventually destroy it.
I thought a lot about the a-bomb back then.
Anyhow I was in the top 25 for the whole country. Big deal. I wonder what impressed them–maybe references to people like Sartre, cause if I had been reading them, I would have thought, "Hmmm. A teenage existentialist in California. The poor kid must need some psychiatric help."
But I was an existentialist for a long time. Life I thought was an extreme situation.