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HOW I BECAME AN EXISTENTIALIST

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By Fred Skolnik

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The Montréal Review, August 2014

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Francis Bacon
‘Study for Figure V’
1956
oil on canvas
60 x 46-1/2”
gift of Joachim Jean Aberbach.

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Before there was post-modernism, there was modernism. Before there was deconstructionism, there was existentialism. I belong to that earlier time. I discovered the existentialists at the age of 20, when I got back to America after spending a year in Israel and found a book on my desk called Existence: A New Dimension in Psychiatry and Psychology (Basic Books, 1958), edited by Rollo May, which I had ordered from some book club before going away. The fact that I was attracted to a new dimension in psychology must have meant that I was already familiar with the old dimension and had become dissatisfied with it. The old dimension was of course Freud's and my dissatisfaction was not with its understanding of neurotic behavior and its underlying causes but with the psychoanalytic method of treatment, which to my mind chose to deal with individuals as types and the neurosis as something to be extirpated, whereas I, in a self-assertive phase, was inclined to see individuals as the unique subjects of their own experience and the energy of the neurosis as something that might be profitably harnessed and thrown into the world.

Existentialism was uncharted territory for me. Sartre was just a name. I had never heard of Heidegger and probably not of Kierkegaard either though I had already read Nietzsche and Camus. Rollo May's two introductory essays pretty much articulated my sense of what it meant to have a self. My personal rebellion was against what threatened to crush that self, which was largely an adult world that insisted on conformity to middle-class values. I discerned also a determination in the so-called social sciences to achieve the dignity of the hard sciences by mimicking their methods and attempting to arrive at the same kinds of hard and fast general truths by compartmentalizing the varieties of human behavior and turning individuals into statistics. I was a rebel with a cause. My enemies were behaviorists and sociologists as well as parents and teachers. 

Existence was a collection of essays and case histories by the leading proponents of the existential analysis movement in psychiatry (Daseinanalyse) along with a number of phenomenologists (in the Husserlian mode). The Dasein came from Heidegger and literally meant "being there," as in Kosinski's novel, and referred to the basic condition of human existence, which was to be "thrown" into the universe without rhyme or reason and to be equipped with a self or being that was uniquely one's own. The problem of having a self was in effect the main subject of existential philosophy and psychology. To have something is to stand perpetually in danger of losing it. How human beings deal with the threat of losing this self and their strategies for preserving it is at the heart of existential analysis. As it is a psychiatric discipline it deals mainly with people who have failed at it.

May asserts that existentialism represents an attempt to undercut "the old dilemma of materialism versus idealism." It therefore endeavors "to cut below the cleavage between subject and object which has bedeviled Western thought and science since shortly after the Renaissance" (p. 11). This dichotomy, writes Ludwig Binswanger in his own introductory essay (p. 191 ff.), is the "fatal flaw" of traditional psychology, for the subject does not stand alone but in relation to the world, to other beings, in a transcendent relationship that brings about the unity of existence and world. Binswanger may be called the founder of existential analysis, a school of thought inspired by the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. From him, Binswanger also took the concept of being-in-the-world. This is a very nice term. It immediately appealed to me as a striking way to describe "the basic structure or condition of existence." The hyphens were there to tell us that we are inseparable from our condition of being in the world. Mental illness was thus not a divergence from a norm or from a theoretical model but a disruption of the subject's unique condition of being-in-the-world. This world, furthermore, was represented by the existential analysts as having a threefold aspect or mode, which Binswanger designated as Umwelt (the natural world), Mitwelt (the social world) and Eigenwelt (our own inner world). I was not reading critically at this point. I was trying to get all this straight in my mind, like the grammar of a foreign language. Nonetheless, as I still viewed the world antagonistically, I might have balked at the idea of such a continuum or at least perceived the perpetual tension along this plane or axis of being among the healthy as well as the sick, nor might I have been inclined to view the natural or biological world, including human instincts, as distinct from the Eigenwelt.  

How all this works on the analyst's couch can be seen in Binswanger's famous "Case of Ellen West," concerning an anorexic young woman diagnosed with schizophrenia who eventually committed suicide (a diagnosis that has recently been challenged in favor of a simple neurosis). The existential structure of her ailment, according to Binswanger, revolved around the ideas of airiness and lightness of being, of being thin, of living in effect without a body, and the downward pull of the corporeal toward death and extinction or existential nothingness. Her sense of being imprisoned in a hole hedged in by an oppressive world, the dread of the emptiness of her being that she tried to fill with food and the dread of the obesity that would be its result and confound her ideal of ethereality, together with her longing for freedom, created an unbearable tension from which the only escape was suicide.

It was not, however, psychiatry as such that interested me, so from here I went directly to existential philosophy itself, picking up Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, an anthology edited by Walter Kaufmann that had gone through thirteen paperback printings by 1960. Here I first read Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre. Later I would read their major works. I would also get Kaufmann's Viking Portable Nietzsche to go with my Modern Library edition and also Kaufmann's own study of Nietzsche, resenting a little his proprietary airs.

I would never think of Nietzsche as an existentialist. "The will to a system is a lack of integrity," he had written. Existentialism is not a system but Sartre and Heidegger present a systematic exposition of the structure of existence or being such as Nietzsche does not. Nietzsche, for me, would remain a great moral force and rallying point, and a wellspring of profound psychological insights. But it was Kierkegaard who provided the key. It was Kierkegaard who identified the central dilemma of human existence, which is precisely the dilemma of wanting and not wanting to have a self. From Kierkegaard too we got the concept of dread, which is angst, anguish or anxiety, arising when the existence or being of the self is called into question.

Heidegger went further, producing one of the great philosophical works of the 20th century. This was Sein und Zeit, or Being and Time, dedicated to his teacher Edmund Husserl, whose phenomenology he adopted. He did not like being called an existentialist, conceding the honor to Sartre insofar as Sartre posited the dictum that existence precedes essence as the basis of his ontological view of the human condition. Husserl had sought to "bracket the world," to study the phenomenon of consciousness and the way objects, its content, are constituted in it, leaving to the side everything else, including our commonplace idea of the reality of the world, to get at the thing itself. Heidegger for his part wished to study Being in and of itself, that is, the nature of the being in which Husserl's objects, the world, constitute themselves. At the end of this process, Heidegger understood that the condition of being thrown into the world and having an indeterminate and contingent existence is the source of that same basic and characteristic feeling of Kierkegaardian dread that assails human beings. He further asserted that to offset this existential angst we try to lose ourselves in the world, in a nebulous, tranquilizing "they" that makes all the rules and has all the answers, which is "something like a fleeing of Dasein in the face of itself – of itself as an authentic potentiality-for-Being-its-Self."

Anxiety makes manifest in Dasein its Being towards its ownmost potentiality-for-Being – that is, its Being-free for the freedom of choosing itself and taking hold of itself. Anxiety brings Dasein face to face with its Being-free for the authenticity of its Being, and for this authenticity as a possibility which it always is…. That about which anxiety is anxious reveals itself as that in the face of which it is anxious – namely, Being-in-the-world.

It should not be thought that all this has anything to do with the prosaic idea of "realizing one's potential," nor does it suggest that we separate ourselves from the world. It concerns itself with the idea of taking possession of oneself, of affirming oneself in one's being-in-the-world by confronting and embracing the freedom of being-at-risk and the responsibility of having a self. It concerns itself with the terms of human existence as such – with the horizon of death and with the problem of belonging to oneself in the most absolute way imaginable.

The idea of freedom, or more specifically our terror of this freedom, is one of the leading themes of Sartre's Being and Nothingness (L'Être et le néant). Unlike inanimate objects or animals for that matter, which have a fixed, biologically (or geologically) grounded nature or "essence," human beings define who and what they are by what they do and in this sense their existence precedes and determines their essence. A genius is someone who produces works of genius and not someone who has an unrealized capacity to produce such works. A moral individual is someone who acts morally and not someone who is "good at heart" but goes out and murders a dozen people.

To the extent that human beings do not wish to have a self, in the Kierkegaardian sense, it is the burden and responsibility of the freedom entailed in having a self that they do not wish to have. In plain English, people do not wish to take responsibility for themselves and face the consequences of who and what they are. The manner in which people flee from the freedom of having an undefined self is by taking on the characteristics of "things" or objects, that is, by refusing to respond to whatever addresses this freedom or by claiming for themselves a given nature and displaying the postures and mannerisms associated with it. Sartre observes a waiter in a café. His movement is a little too precise, a little too rapid. He bends forward a little too eagerly, his eyes express interest a little too solicitously. What is he doing? Sartre understands immediately that he is playing at being a waiter. He is turning himself into a thing called a waiter with a predetermined essence and thereby denying or repressing his own freedom or being. In this case, society demands it of him, just as it demands "the dance of the grocer, the tailor, the auctioneer" and in fact demands something of this kind from all of us. But Sartre also considers a woman going out with someone for the first time. At a certain point he will take her hand. She is now faced with a dilemma. She may accept the overture as a sign that the relationship can go forward or reject it and set the relationship back. But there is a third possibility as well, that the woman, unwilling to decide, leaves her hand where it is but pretends not to notice that it is being held. Like the waiter she has abrogated her freedom to choose and made herself into a thing. Sartre calls this "bad faith" (mauvaise foi or self-deception). This is a very human way of "facing issues." This is the problem of having a self but not wishing to assume responsibility for it.

How does "bad faith" or "self-deception" manifest itself as a way of life? The basic or underlying structure of the human psyche is unchanging. Its first principle is the principle of self-preservation. Spinoza recognized that this principle applies to the mind as much as it does to the body, anticipating not only Darwin but the existentialists as well in his famous dictum (Ethics 3:6): "Each thing, insofar as it is in itself, endeavors to persevere in its own being" (Unaquaeque res, quantum in se est, in suo esse perseverare conatur). This conatus or effort is the will to existence. It operates blindly and equally in all existing things. It is found in the stone, in the tree, in the rodent, in human beings. It is the condition and principle of existence without which nothing could exist. It is implied in the fact of existence. It is there by definition. To exist means to be equipped with the capacity to exist. Otherwise the center would not hold, things would fall apart. Think then of the energy contained in the atom as the materialization of this will to existence, the binding force ensuring that the atom will maintain its integrity and persevere in itself.

It is with equal determination that human beings endeavor to preserve the integrity of the self, for "the mind … endeavors to persevere in its being for an indefinite time and is conscious of this effort" (3:9). But how does the mind go about preserving itself? and what are its weapons? For it is certainly nothingness, the extinction of the self as the repository of one's own being, that we dread. The way we protect it, instinctively and universally, is to throw up a barrier against whatever threatens it. This barrier is our manner, projecting the self into an idea of ourselves that can withstand the scrutiny of the world while we avert our eyes from any intrusion of self-knowledge that contradicts it. The self always recognizes itself as belonging to itself and is necessarily committed to its own well-being. The threat to the self is whatever may diminish it in its own eyes or in the eyes of the world, for the sense of well-being is produced by the good opinion of others and our own good opinion of ourselves.

Individuals thus choose or slip into a persona. This is the face they present to the world. It is meant to present the self in the best possible light and in this way elicit praise, respect, admiration. The social world is therefore engaged by a social self that is always double-edged, consisting of word and gesture and intention. The intention is often to deceive. Professional actors are bad actors insofar as they fail to conceal the fact that there is nothing behind the façade. That is why scripted speech does not sound like real speech. Only a few great actors convey a real sense of inwardness. In contrast, the playactors and posturers, the amateurs, our friends and neighbors, are bad actors for just the opposite reason, for one can see immediately what is being concealed. We tend to think of such people as empty shells but they are not, in the way that professional actors are; they are transparent. When such individuals "let their defenses down" they are liable to be exposed, wounded, diminished. But though many of us recognize playacting in others, we generally let it pass out of simple politeness, or as a license to playact ourselves, for when we wish to speak well of ourselves, as Nietzsche observed, we run to our neighbor to seduce him into sharing our illusions.

Nonetheless, it is tempting and even logical to say that the more an individual surrenders himself to postures and mannerisms the further removed he will be from himself, until nothing remains but the will to appear in a certain light. But this cannot be entirely true. The self in a living, breathing organism is never extinguished. It can only hide itself from the world, and often from itself, but there is always something that remains, in the privacy of the mind, in the restless hours when we are alone with ourselves, that pushes up against us to remind us who we are, even if it is in the faintest whisper. Ultimately, we cannot hide from ourselves entirely. Peel away the armor and you will find a frightened animal. This is the naked self, "face to face with its Being-free for the authenticity of its Being" and confronting the dread of having a self that can be assailed, diminished, lost.

A central element in Freud's understanding of human psychology is repression. A central element in existentialism is this dread or anxiety. Repression is a defense mechanism that protects the individual from what he cannot bear to know. As long as the repressed material does not manifest itself, in the distortions of the dream or in neurotic symptoms, the repression may be said to be successful, though one might argue, again, that there will always be a sense of something unresolved beneath the surface, producing at the very least a feeling of malaise. Anxiety, as it is understood by the existentialists, is an expression of the basic human condition of belonging to oneself and facing the possibility of losing oneself. Anxiety is what we experience in the face of the threat of nonbeing, or the dissolution of the self. It is, as Kierkegaard recognized, the dread both of having and not having a self, of losing the self and of having to possess it and sustain it.  

We are accustomed to think that anxiety is an exclusively human condition, for only human beings can have a self that recognizes the contingency of its own being and what is at stake in its existence. In the Sartrean scheme, an animal exists "in-itself" rather than "for-itself" like a human being because its essence – its biology – precedes its existence and determines its nature. It does not define itself in its existence. Yet at the same time, being conscious and knowing that it belongs to itself in the same immediate and intuitive way that human beings do, it is susceptible to whatever threatens the integrity of that self. If it was not conscious of itself as belonging to itself it would not react to danger at all. Therefore it would not be strictly true to say that animals do not experience anxiety as well as concrete fear. An animal responds instinctively to an immediate physical threat, but an animal may also respond to a deeper threat that assails something that may be called its being. Such an animal hovers between instinct and human self-consciousness.

In the second volume of The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer reproduces an edifying traveler's tale about a Javanese squirrel that was observed scurrying back and forth in a tree in what looked like a state of extreme agitation. Soon it became apparent that the cause of the agitation was a snake coiled in a hollow of the trunk. The squirrel, however, did not flee, for higher up in the tree was a nest with its young. Suddenly it seemed to be seized with terror and its movements became erratic; it was as if it was trying to place an obstacle between itself and the nest. Then the squirrel uttered a plaintive cry. It went forward a step, then back, then forward again, then back again, always coming nearer and nearer to the snake. The snake did not take its eyes off the squirrel. The squirrel descended from branch to branch until it reached a bare part of the trunk. Now it made no further attempt to avoid the danger, rushing headlong into the jaws of the snake which were suddenly opened as wide as possible in order to receive it.

The suicide acts to preserve the integrity of his being. He is like a child fleeing voices in the dark. But the suicide has nowhere to run. He is imprisoned by the world. He cannot escape it. Wherever he turns the world presses up against him. It comes nearer and nearer. Its jaws open. It would consume him. It would negate his cherished idea of himself. It would usurp his will. He cannot bear the thought of it. He cannot bear this threat of extinction hovering over him like a coiled snake about to strike. He cannot bear it a moment longer.

What is more terrible than death? Perhaps the idea of death. Certainly the idea of a life without a self. For that too is a kind of death.

The self is a biological entity, operating on biological principles. It recoils from insults and injuries just as the body recoils from blows. It can be crushed like an arm or a leg. It operates on the principle of self-preservation. The will to preserve the self is as powerful as the will to live.

The squirrel had committed suicide. Some might say that it sacrificed itself to save its young, or that in its terror its senses became so deranged that it rushed into the jaws of the snake out of confusion. I would say that the squirrel rushed into the jaws of the snake to release itself from an unbearable state of anxiety. I would say that the squirrel chose to lose its life rather than its being.

That being indeed resided in its instinctual life, an instinctual life in which survival and procreation were the leading ideas and in which the disruption of those ideas caused the same mental duress that overcame Ellen West. The squirrel could not bear the instinctually contemplated idea of losing its young, which constituted the instinctually perceived meaning of its existence. That idea was not thought but felt. It pervaded its entire being. Without this idea it would lose its self. It could not bear that. It could not bear its sense of being-about-to-lose-itself, it could not endure the tension inherent in facing such a possibility, and chose to die rather than bear witness to the extinction of its own being.

In the act of suicide, it is not ourselves that we mean to throw away but the world – the world that holds us in its grip, as in a vise, transfixed, and would crush us. Slowly, insidiously, the world possesses us. Its smile creeps over our faces, its voice speaks in us, its dreams enchant us, until nothing is left that we may call our own. Is it not better to die and still belong to oneself rather than witnesssing our own demise? So the suicide reasons.

The suicide would lose the world to save himself. But he is deceived. It is the paradox of all acts of suicide that one relinquishes the world to preserve one's being but necessarily loses one's being as well. For life clings to both and though there may be life without a world there can be no being without life. What is life? An animating force. And what is being? The knowledge that one belongs to oneself. Not for an instant will the suicide savor his freedom from the world. He expires, and all that is in him expires too.

Binswanger's three worlds are a single cross section of being, yielding a plane or axis that facilitates the localization of disruptions of being-in-the-world, but there remains nonetheless a dichotomy, I believe, and this is the gulf between being-in-the-world and being-without-a-world, and into this gulf there enters the most terrible freedom of all, the freedom sought by the sick in spirit, the freedom of relinquishing the world. This is the condition of those who surrender themselves to the definitive existential acts of murder, madness or suicide. For these are the acts that cut the cord that binds us to the world.

The suicide would lose the world to save himself. Not so the madman. The madman wants life but not a self. The madman flees both the world and himself. Clearly he cannot bear the world but neither can he bear himself and so he shuts his eyes and with a terrible cry of negation throws not his life but his being away. I do not mean madness that is mere chemistry. Let the chemists deal with chemistry.  

Here is a story of a madman and a jester. A madman sat in the corner of a room babbling strangely to himself and would not speak and did not hear. And a jester came into the room feigning not to notice him. He wore a clown's costume and a hat with bells. He did cartwheels and somersaults, he tripped over imaginary objects, he laughed without cause, he berated himself in angry tones, and behold the man who sat in the corner came back to himself for a moment to observe this strange behavior, as an escaped convict might risk returning to his former home for a single night, for the jester would certainly have struck a sane man as mad himself and even a madman may be curious.

Now when the jester saw that he had captured the madman's attention he paused and brought a finger to his lips and then he scratched his head as if he was deep in thought. And the madman watched him as though wondering what he would do next, and the jester seized the moment to leave the room and then came back carrying a bucket of white paint. And the jester painted a broad white line down the center of the room, whistling while he worked and ignoring the madman entirely while the madman continued to observe him with no less interest than before. And the jester stood on one side of the white line and the madman sat in his corner on the other side of the white line. And the jester left the room again and returned with some rope in thick coils. And the jester tied the rope around his waist and threw it across the white line that ran down the center of the room and it lay very close to the madman who sat in the corner watching him. And the jester said, "Quick! Quick! Take it! Take it! I'll save you, I'll pull you across, I'll get you out of there. Take it! Take it!" And the jester shouted at him across the line as though indeed across a gulf and the madman looked at him and looked at the rope but did not move and the jester shouted to him again, more urgently now, "Grab it! Grab it! I'll pull you across, I won't let go, I'll save you, I'll save you!" And a look of understanding came into the madman's eyes and he looked at the rope and he looked at the jester, and finally he took the rope and the jester called to him, "Now, now! Now I'll pull you in! Don't let go! Hold on tight!" And slowly the jester pulled and tugged and reeled him in talking all the while and the madman came across the white line gasping and sobbing and fell into the arms of the jester and would not let him go.

This is the story of the madman and the jester. So may the mad be recalled from their madness, so may the mad return to themselves. The madman hides from himself in a corner of his mind. He crouches in the darkness of his soul. He throws the world away and throws himself away. The jester entertains him, causing him to see the world again, enticing him, and roping him in. Then the madman emerges from the dark place where he has hidden like a child that comes out of a cave and crosses the line that separates him from the world in order to reclaim it and become himself again. So may the madman be recalled from his madness, so may he be drawn out of his madness by a clever ruse, for he does not throw his life away. Shall we call him a coward?

But there is another madness more terrible than all the rest, that madness which stares itself in the face to know a single moment of irreducible freedom. This is the madness of murder. This is the moment of absolute and terrifying freedom when we come to possess ourselves totally by throwing away the world once and for all time. I do not mean murder for gain, murder as a social or pathological act, murder that puffs one up or soothes the nerves. Let the criminologists deal with common criminals.

To lose the world. To lose the hope and the possibility of having a world, irrevocably, to stand outside the universe where nothing holds true and there is no way back, everything is torn asunder, demolished, every truth, every certainty, every argument, every illusion, every dream. To have a self without a world. For would anything be more banal than to seek to escape one's fate. Only the criminal plans escape, for to escape is to seek to regain the hope of the world. Not for the world does our madman murder but for the relinquishing of it, not in rage but in terror.

In a small space, high above the world, the murderer looks down from the parapet where the gun stands upright and ready for use. The door is locked or barricaded, there is little room to pace or carry out the elaborate ceremony of preparation. You'd think there'd be a kind of frenzy in him but he is calm, a certain gravity or businesslike intensity coming over him as he considers the technical problems involved – loading and reloading, the timing and spacing, the pattern, the unfolding of the scene. Truly it is exhilarating to contemplate the coming moment, to have the world and not to have the world, to teeter on the edge. He holds the gun and peers down the sights for a long moment, almost giving way to the impulse to fire all at once. But it must be done simply and naturally, the sights fixed at random on one figure and then another, the shots ringing out one after the other, evenly spaced and with a long pause in between, and then he will be free at last, in one body and one soul.

The horror can be imagined, the freedom cannot. In this instant of absolute and terrifying freedom when the plunge is made, shattering forever all hopes, dreams and illusions, there is nothing anymore but the strangled cry. The murderer turns to find himself and finds nothing. And yet he is there, in a new relation to the universe. It is in the contemplation of this horror made actual that absolute freedom is found.

In the irrevocable act of renunciation not only the world falls away but whatever was forged by the world. It is washed away with the world as in a tidal wave. Down the drain it goes. Good riddance, you say. Good riddance to bad rubbish and the devil take the hindmost.

To murder gratuitously and randomly as an act of renunciation, to cut the cord irrevocably, demonstratively, with a single stroke, to burn the final bridge and seek oneself on the other shore with no way back – that is the most terrible freedom of all, freedom that is not a condition to be lived but truly the naked horror itself – the horror of not having a world, the terror of having a self without a world. And it is in this utter horror of losing the world rather than oneself that the meaning of the act is to be sought. For the act of throwing away the world is the supreme affirmation of the self.

Why does the murderer seek this release? It is because he too has labored under the unbearable onus of dread. Like the suicide and the madman he watches himself being ground into dust and cannot bear the thought of it – but he refuses to relinquish his life or his being. He strikes out at the world knowing that with this act he must lose them both but knowing too that for a single moment he will belong to himself. He pays the price. He has made his pact with the devil. This is the existential meaning of the act.

So the world is given, so the world is lost. Terrible to lose the world and the hope of the world, terrible the affirmation of oneself as he-who-cannot-and-will-not. But terrible too to cling to the world and lose the self. Is there not a way out?

In "The Case of Ellen West," Binswanger speaks of being-in-the-world-beyond-the-world. This is in fact the familiar dual mode of Martin Buber's I-Thou of love. Binswanger poetically calls this exalted state home and eternity. "Home and eternity" therefore yields not so much a meaning as a melody, and consequently it speaks in its resonance less to reason than to feeling. This is the place, it seems to me, that all of us are seeking. It is that place where all of us come into possession of ourselves and finally come to rest. This is the eternity where all moments are the present moment, eternally expanding into the realm of undisclosed time, and this is the place where the self is fully lived. This self can only be found when it is withdrawn from its idea of itself. Then it may or may not meet others on the ground of their being but it will never lose the ground of its own being. Out of this ground and the scrap heap of a discarded social self one may build a life worthy of oneself and step out of oneself to act in the world, paradoxically, without a self. Then we may die a free and consummating death, surrounded by those we love.

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Fred Skolnik is the editor in chief of the 22-volume second edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, winner of the 2007 Dartmouth Medal. He is also the author of the novel The Other Shore (Aqueous Books) and has published stories and essays in numerous journals, including TriQuarterly, The MacGuffin, Minnetonka Review, Los Angeles Review, Prism Review, Literary House Review, Words & Images, and Third Coast.

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