Gaddafi, Existentialist by Charlie Nash (Independent: 2021), 100 pages.
On October 20, 2011, the four-decade rule of Muammar Gaddafi came to a brutal end when Libyan rebels, supported by NATO bombers and Predator drones, captured, tortured, and killed the fugitive leader. A few days later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took credit for his downfall with an infamous boast: “We came, we saw, he died.” But instead of the new democratic dawn envisioned by Western governments, Libya descended into prolonged, bloody civil war. Amidst the chaos, human trafficking and even open-air slave markets flourished. There’s a case to be made that the dream of liberal internationalism perished along with Gaddafi that day.
Gaddafi’s ignominious demise abruptly erased him from Western consciousness, where he had been a spectral presence for decades. The media alternated between presenting him as a buffoonish megalomaniac and as a dangerous madman. Under the Reagan administration, he took the blame for a series of terrorist attacks against the West, culminating in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. In his 2016 documentary HyperNormalisation, filmmaker Adam Curtis argued that U.S. propaganda had exaggerated Gaddafi’s role for strategic reasons: Libya’s relative isolation and distance from Western allies, especially Israel, made it a more convenient target for reprisals than other state sponsors of terror like Syria’s Hafez al-Assad. In the context of Cold War geopolitics, the man known as “The Colonel” took on the mythic role of the scapegoat king: the powerful insider who was at the same time an eccentric and despised outsider, and could therefore assume culpability for all manner of iniquities.
In his brief new biographical study, Gaddafi, Existentialist, journalist Charlie Nash offers an intriguing new perspective on his subject’s perpetual outsider status. At minimum, Nash demonstrates, Gaddafi was aware of existentialist philosophy and alluded to it in his writings and speeches. But perhaps, he speculates, Gaddafi was also a crypto-existentialist whose sensibility and governing philosophy was shaped by this intellectual tradition. Nash might have rendered the stakes of this line of inquiry more explicit—that is, why it would matter if Gaddafi was an existentialist. Instead, he frames the matter more as a personal obsession. The appeal of the book may therefore depend on the reader’s degree of curiosity about Gaddafi, existentialism, or both.
As Nash acknowledges, some will find the Gaddafi, Existentialist hypothesis implausible. Indeed, the Colonel himself preemptively rejected it, stating in one speech that existentialism “looks for the secret of existence, while we understand this secret and we do so through religion.” Gaddafi’s best-known articulation of his broader political philosophy was his “Green Book” (the title a nod to Mao’s “Little Red Book”). The “Third International Theory” he elaborated there was a variety of “third positionism” that claimed to use Islam to transcend the limitations of capitalism and communism. As Nash concedes, Gaddafi repeatedly insisted that the influences on his thought were not Western thinkers, but Islamic philosophy and the homespun wisdom of his native Bedouin culture. Nash’s inquiry into Gaddafi’s existentialism therefore runs up against his subject’s own denials of any debt to this (or any other) decadent Western philosophy.
Nevertheless, Nash reveals several elements of Gaddafi’s career that point to a relationship with existentialist thought. First, he examines several journalists’ and observers’ reports that the Libyan leader’s favorite book was Colin Wilson’s 1956 bestseller The Outsider, a primer on existentialism that rooted this philosophical tendency in the experience of social alienation. It’s plausible, Nash suggests, that he encountered Wilson’s book during his time studying in England in the mid-1960s, a stay in which he reportedly experienced the predicament examined by Wilson: the isolation and anomie of the inhabitant of the modern urban metropolis. But Gaddafi might just as easily have encountered the book before that. The Outsider was translated into Arabic soon after its publication. Its success made Wilson a cult figure in the Middle East, and toured Lebanon and Syria. According to a friend of Wilson’s interviewed by Nash, Gaddafi also invited the cult author to Libya, but he turned down the invitation.
This brings us to another piece of evidence for Gaddafi’s possible existentialism: the pervasive influence of this school of philosophy across the Arab world by the 1960s. Not only Wilson’s Outsider, but works by Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and others were bestsellers in Arabic translation, and Sartre cultivated ties with radical Arab intellectuals. On this subject, Nash quotes Yoav Di-Capua’s book No Exit: Arab Existentialism, Jean Paul Sartre and Decolonization: “by the 1950s the Arab world boasted of having the largest existentialist scene outside of Europe.” If the Arab nationalist milieu that incubated Gaddafi was teeming with existentialists, that suggests he may have been affected by their ideas. On the other hand, if he was as much of an outsider as Nash suggests, he might also have been aloof to this trend. Regardless, the existentialist themes of freedom and authenticity resonated with the concerns Gaddafi shared with the Arab nationalists of the immediate post-colonial era.
The principal non-circumstantial evidence Nash offers for Gaddafi’s existentialist leanings is the latter’s single published literary work: a collection of short stories published in English translation under the title Escape to Hell (surprisingly, with a complimentary foreword by the JFK confidant and California Senator Pierre Salinger). The stories in Escape to Hell, Nash demonstrates, express an alienated sensibility of the sort we might associate with existentialist texts like Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, Camus’s The Stranger, and Sartre’s Nausea. Islam and the traditional lifestyle of the Bedouin people, which Gaddafi claimed were the source of his values, appear in these stores as the only means of escape from the hell of the modern world.
The ethos conveyed in Gaddafi’s foray into literature suggests we might see him not just as a fellow traveler of existentialism, as Nash argues, but as a late emanation of European Romanticism, which idealized the uncontaminated rural life of the authentic Volk as a counterweight to a corrupt civilization. Ironically, like all modern nationalisms, Gaddafi’s was at its most Western precisely in the moments when it rejected the West in favor of the autochthonous. We might add that his “socialist Jamahiriya” was bankrolled by the export of petroleum to the industrial economies he detested. A surreal late illustration of his contradictory relation to the West came during a 2009 visit to the U.N. General Assembly in New York, when Gaddafi paid a hefty fee to pitch his Bedouin tent on a suburban estate. The man who rented him the land was Donald Trump.
One broader implication of Nash’s analysis of Gaddafi, as I suggested previously, is that in the course of his career he attained a status comparable to that of the scapegoat kings of myth and legend. That is, he became the latest in the long line of alienated outsiders who managed to ascend to a position of power, only to be made to function as scapegoats. In Gaddafi’s case, both by the Western powers who bombed and sanctioned him and later, by his own people, who killed him in a sort of spontaneous sacrificial act that aimed to regenerate the nation, but led to the opposite result. As Nash notes, Gaddafi foresaw his fate in the title story in Escape to Hell, which reflects on the fate of leaders who fall victim to the populace that once adored them.
While Gaddafi was never taken seriously by most intellectuals, Nash’s book shows that his political philosophy was one of a variety of efforts to forge an ideological basis for a modern nation state by fusing Islamic and local traditions with European intellectual frameworks. From this perspective, his dabbling in existentialism was not entirely out of place, as Nash demonstrates. Gaddafi’s nation-building enterprise provoked fear and hostility from Western governments in its heyday, but it looks far more benign now that Libya and other states in the region have descended into civil war, helping give rise to the nihilistic death cult of ISIS. Like Gaddafi, the ideologues of ISIS claim to be returning to an authentic Islamic politics. But their reactionary fantasies, like his, are crucially shaped by European Romanticism’s rejection of a corrupt modernity. In Gaddafi’s time as much as now, the spectral terrors the West projects onto the exotic Middle East are a denial of the extent to which the region’s political history is intertwined with our own.
Geoff Shullenberger is a senior lecturer at NYU. His writing has appeared most recently in the Washington Examiner, the Chronicle of Higher Education, American Affairs, and the New Atlantis. His blog and podcast is Outsider Theory (outsidertheory.com).