Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café:
Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails
Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails takes a deep but refreshingly casual look at the philosophical way of thinking termed existentialism, giving the term an historical treatment grounded in the actual lives of existentilist philosophers. Part philosophy, part history, part biography, her work is also part autobiographical. Bakewell, a British writer and teacher who is the author of a highlyacclaimed book on Montaigne, endearingly details her own journey in learning about existentialism and explains how major existential writings influenced her personally. Philosophy, she contends, “becomes more interesting when it is cast into the form of a life.” Likewise, “personal experience is more interesting when thought about philosophically” (p.32). Quite so.
More than just about any other form of philosophy, existentialism cannot really be understood without digging into the day-to-day lives of existential philosophers themselves. The existentialist, Bakewell emphasizes, seeks to capture the “quality of experience as we live it rather than according to the frameworks suggested by traditional philosophy, psychology, Marxism, Hegelianism, structuralism, or any of the other –isms and disciplines that explain our lives away” (p.325). Bakewell acknowledges that existentialism is difficult to define more precisely, with no consensus definition. For some, it is “more of a mood than a philosophy” (p.1). Her definition is itself a page long, and she invites her readers to skip over it.
At the risk of oversimplifying a complex and elusive term, existentialism in Bakewell’s interpretation might best be thought of as a way of thinking about existence for human beings. It focuses upon how humans live the moments large and small in the time allotted to them, i.e., how they exist. Humans are unique beings in that they are free to choose how they live and are responsible for their choices, but only within what Bakewell describes as a “situation,” which includes a person’s own biology and psychology as well as the “physical, historical and social variables” of each human being’s situation. The existentialist therefore sees human existence, Bakewell emphasizes, as “ambiguous: at once boxed in by borders and yet transcendent and exhilarating” (p.34).
Bakewell’s hardcopy cover features sketches of four individuals: Jean Paul Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir at the center, flanked by Albert Camus on their left and Maurice Merleau-Ponty to their right. Sartre and Beauvoir are not only at the center of the cover: they are also the center of Bakewell’s story, occupying the main table at her Existentialist Café, a “big, busy café of the mind” (p.33). Existentialism is above all the story of Sartre and Beauvoir, philosophy’s ultimate power couple, defined by their writings and their lives. Because Sartre and Beauvoir famously lived those lives in Paris, the story’s main setting is France and the Parisian intellectual milieu from the late 1920s until Sartre’s death in 1980 and Beauvoir’s six years later (almost to the day), in 1986.
The Existentialist Café is thus a Parisian café, probably located somewhere on the Boulevard St. Germain in Paris’ 6th arrondissement, much like the actual cafés where Sartre and Beauvoir wrote, drank, met friends and acquaintances, and thrashed out their existential ideas over the course of a half-century. Sartre and Beauvoir became a couple in 1929, when they were 23 and 21 respectively. From the beginning, their relationship was explicitly open-ended, allowing both partners to pursue amorous digressions. But their relationship was also what Bakewell terms a “philosophical demonstration of existentialism in practice, defined by the two principles of freedom and companionship” (p120). Although the bourgeois ideal of marriage held no appeal for either, their “shared memories, observations and jokes bound them together just as in any long marriage” (p.120).
Camus and Merleau-Ponty, not quite existentialists in the sense that Bakewell uses the term, were Sartre and Beauvoir’s contemporaries who drank frequently with them and thought, wrote and argued – often vehemently — about many of the ideas that animated Sartre and Beauvoir. Merleau-Ponty, far less well known than Camus, Sartre and Beauvoir, merits a full chapter in Bakewell’s work, part of her effort to introduce him to English language readers. Camus and Merleau-Ponty both had fallings out with Sartre and Beauvoir, partially over Cold War political differences and partially because Sartre’s outsized personality led naturally to fallings out with just about everyone he befriended, save Beauvoir. Camus and Merleau-Ponty’s fluctuating relationships with Sartre and Beauvoir constitute one of the book’s two main threads.
The other is the influence exerted upon the couple by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, Germans of an older generation associated with an approach to philosophy termed phenomenology, existentialism’s direct antecedent. Heidegger, infamous for embracing Nazism in the 1930s and remaining steadfastly unrepentant thereafter, is a brooding, almost villainous presence throughout Bakewell’s study — a scary guy when he drops in at the Existentialist Café, unlikely to be telling many jokes. Some of the 20th century’s foremost thinkers, writers and intellectuals also make short appearances at Bakewell’s café, including Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, Richard Wright and James Baldwin.
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Existentialism may be a difficult term to define, but its origins are easy to pinpoint in Bakewell’s account: a conversation during the 1932-33 Christmas holiday season, involving Sartre, Beauvoir and Raymond Aron, Sartre’s classmate at France’s renowned Ecole Normale Superièure. The conversation took place at Paris’ Bac-de-Gaz café on Boulevard Montparnasse, about a mile from the Boulevard St. Germain cafés Beauvoir and Sartre later made famous. Sartre, 27, and Beauvoir, 25, were then teaching high school in separate locations in Normandy and were back home in Paris enjoying the holiday break. Aron had just returned from studying philosophy in Berlin, a city then on edge, with Adolph Hitler’s unruly National Socialist party enjoying a surge in representation in Weimar Germany’s Parliament. The three 20 somethings exchanged banter and the latest gossip as they drank apricot cocktails, the Bac-de-Gaz’s specialty.
Aron recounted to his friends his discovery in Berlin of phenomenology, then considered a new approach to philosophy. He explained how eminent philosophers Husserl and Heidegger were turning away from the often-contorted abstractions of traditional philosophy to concentrate on things as they are – being was the key word. Husserl and Heidegger were asking questions such as: what is it for a thing to be? What does it mean to say you are? Looking at the apricot cocktails on the table, Aron told his friends, “If you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!” (p.3). Although Sartre and Beauvoir were familiar with the works of Husserl and Heidegger, in Bakewell’s account this moment at the Montparnasse café was an epiphany for both, the moment when the approach to the philosophy hat we now call existentialism came into being. Together, over the course of nearly a half-century, Sartre and Beauvoir went on to transform some of the basic ideas of phenomenology into their own distinct way of thinking.
Sartre subsequently studied in Germany under Husserl. But the roots of existentialism in Bakewell’s interpretation may be found even further back than Heidegger and Husserl, in the work of 19th century philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard. The “heralds of modern existentialism,” Nietzsche and Kierkegaard “pioneered a mood of rebellion and dissatisfaction, created a new definition of existence as choice, action and self-assertion, and made a study of the anguish and difficulty of life. They also worked in the conviction that philosophy was not just a profession. It was life itself – the life of an individual” (p.20).
20th century phenomenology built upon and systematized Nietzsche and Kierkegaard’s iconoclastic way of thinking. It sought, as Bakewell puts it, to give a “formal mode of access to human experience,” allowing philosophers to “talk about life more or less as non-philosophers do, while still being able to tell themselves they are being methodological and rigorous” (p.43). This mode of access to human experience flourished amidst the turmoil of post-World War I Germany under Hussserl, considered to be the “father” of phenomenology, and Heidegger, Husserl’s student and subsequently his colleague at the University of Freiburg. For Husserl, phenomenology meant “stripping away distractions, habits, clichés of thought, presumptions and received ideas, in order to return to what he called the ‘things themselves’” (p.40). As Hitler’s virulent form of xenophobic nationalism took hold in Germany, Husserl, born into a Jewish family, sought to retain the Enlightenment spirit of shared reason and free inquiry (p.132). He died in 1938 at age 79.
Heidegger took phenomenology in a different direction in the 1930s. His appeal to students was that he sought nothing less than to “overturn human thinking, destroy the history of metaphysics, and start philosophy all over again” (p.62). His writings revealed a yearning to go back “into the deep forest, into childhood innocence and into the dark waters from which the first swirling chords of thought had stirred. Back . . . to a time when societies were simple, profound and poetic” (p.131). Heidegger urged his students to exercise “vigilance,” to transcend the human tendency to become stuck in habits, received ideas, and a narrow-minded attachment to possessions.
But vigilance for Heidegger in Hitler’s Germany “did not mean calling attention to Nazi violence, to the intrusion of state surveillance, or to the physical threats to his fellow humans. It meant being decisive and resolute in carrying through the demands history was making upon Germany, with its distinctive Being and destiny. It meant getting in step with the chosen hero” (p.87). Heidegger “set himself against the philosophy of humanism, and he himself was rarely humane in his behavior” (p.320), Bakewell contends. She notes an instance where Heidegger went out of his way late in life to welcome the Jewish poet and concentration camp survivor Paul Celan to Freiburg. Bakewell terms this the “single documented example” she found in her research of Heidegger “actually doing something nice” (p.304-05).
Sartre was hardly more likeable — “monstrous . . . self-indulgent, demanding [and] bad tempered” (p.321-22). But behind these less commendable qualities, Bakewell finds an endearing man with powerful ideas bursting out “on all sides with energy, peculiarity, generosity and communicativeness” (p.322). Unlike Heidegger, Sartre “moved ever forwards, always working out new (often bizarre) responses to things, or finding ways of reconciling old ideas with fresh input. . . He was always thinking ‘against himself,’” and he “followed Husserl’s phenomenological command by exploring whatever topic seemed most difficult at each moment” (p.322). Freedom became the great subject of Sartre’s philosophy during the Nazi occupation, central to almost everything he wrote from that point onward.
The connection between description and freedom fascinated Sartre. “A writer is a person who describes, and thus a person who is free – for a person who can exactly describe what he or she experiences can also exert some control over those events. Sartre explored this link between writing and freedom again and again in his work” (p.104). Bakewell is impressed by Sartre’s radical atheism, so different from that professed by Heidegger, who “abandoned his faith only in order to pursue a more intense form of mysticism. Sartre was a profound atheist, and a humanist to his bones. He outdid even Nietzsche in his ability to live courageously and thoughtfully in the conviction that nothing lies beyond, and that no divine compensations will ever make up for anything on this earth.” For Sartre, Bakewell writes with emphasis, “this life is what we have, and we must make of it what we can” (p.323).
Beauvoir in Bakewell’s view was a better fiction writer than Sartre, exploring in her writings how the forces of constraint and freedom play themselves out in everyday lives. One of the 20th century’s “greatest intellectual chroniclers” (p.326), with a “genius for being amazed by the world” (p.109), Beauvoir is best known today for her landmark 1949 feminist tract, The Second Sex, a work “revolutionary in every sense”(p.208) which addressed the “complex territory where free choice, biology and social and cultural factors meet and mingle” (p.226).
How to be a woman was for Beauvoir the “existentialist problem par excellence” (p.215). Bakewell terms The Second Sex a “confident experiment in what we might call ‘applied existentialism,’” in which Beauvoir “used philosophy to tackle two huge subjects: the history of humanity – which she reinterpreted as a history of patriarchy – and the history of an individual woman’s whole life as it plays itself out from birth to old age” (p.208). The Second Sex in Bakewell’s view is the “single most influential work ever to come out of the existentialist movement” (p.210).
Left-wing politics were a huge part of the existentialist agenda for both Sartre and Beauvoir, with Sartre the more overtly political. Sartre was never a Communist party member, and his relationship to communism is not the mirror image of Heidegger and Nazism. But Sartre adopted some outlandish left-wing ideas. He embraced anti-colonialist Franz Fanon’s rejection of Gandhi’s notion of non-violent change, considering violence essential to political progress. His embrace, Bakewell writes, was so enthusiastic that he “outdid the original, shifting the emphasis so as to prize violence for its own sake. Sartre seemed to see the violence of the oppressed as a Nietzchean act of self-creation. Like Fanon, he also contrasted it with the hidden brutality of colonialism” (p.274).
Sartre was the direct target of Raymond Aron’s classic 1955 work, The Opium of the Intellectuals, in which his Ecole Normale classmate accused Sartre of being “merciless towards the failings of the democracies but ready to tolerate the worse crimes as long as they are committed in the name of proper doctrines” (p. 266). Sartre was troubled by the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary but it was not until the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 during the “Prague Spring” that he definitively rejected the Soviet model, “only to praise people like Mao Tse-tung and Pol Pot instead” (p.293).
Cold War differences also upended Sartre and Beauvoir’s friendship with their contemporaries and formerly close companions Merleau-Ponty and Camus. Bakewell describes Merleau Ponty as the “happy philosopher of things as they are” (p.326), the sole thinker at Bakewell’s Existentialist Café who seemed to have had a happy childhood. Beauvoir once considered Merleau-Ponty, born months before her in 1908, potential boyfriend material before concluding that his sunny bourgeois outlook was a poor fit with her more combative disposition. On the cover, Merleau-Ponty is the only one of the three men dressed in a suit and tie, and he seems in this account a little out of place at the Existentialist café — the fellow who joins the gang for a few drinks after a day’s work, then catches the train back to a suburban home to spend the rest of the evening with the wife and kids.
But if the non-Bohemian Merleau-Ponty was out of place at the Existentialist Café, Bakewell considers him the “intellectual hero” of her story for providing the fullest description of “how we live from moment to moment, and thus of what we are” (p.325). Merleau-Ponty brought the insights of psychology and cognitive science to the study of philosophy, and in particular elevated child psychology as an essential component of philosophy, an “extraordinary insight.” Apart from Rousseau, Bakewell notes, few philosophers before Merleau-Ponty had taken childhood seriously. Most “wrote as though all human experience were that of a fully conscious, rational, verbal adult who has been dropped into this world from the sky – perhaps by a stork” (p.231). Very favorable to Communism in the 1940s, Merleau-Ponty became disaffected with its ideological rigidity in the 1950s, at the time of the Korean War. He laid out his case against Communism in a 1955 book, Adventures of the Dialectic, which included a chapter entitled “Sartre and Ultrabolshevism” that criticized Sartre’s political writings for their inconsistencies and lack of practicality. The work prompted a rift between the two men that healed only upon Merleau-Ponty’s death in 1961 from a heart attack at age 53, when Sartre wrote a glowing obituary about his one-time friend.
Camus is the “new kid on the block” at Bakewell’s Existential Café, a brash outsider from Algeria unwilling to be intimidated by Sartre (although quite willing to be charmed by Beauvoir). Camus’ vision was embodied in his 1942 piece, The Myth of Sisyphus where he argued, as Bakewell puts it, that we must “decide whether to give up or keep going. If we keep going, it must be on the basis of accepting that there is no ultimate meaning to what we do” (p.150). Sartre and Beauvoir rejected Camus’ vision. For them, Bakewell emphasizes, “life is not absurd . . . Life for them is full of real meaning, although that meaning emerges differently for each of us” (p.151). Camus’ 1951 essay The Rebel laid out a theory of rebellion and political activism that Sartre viewed as an attack upon Soviet Communism and its fellow travelers, notably himself. Dismissing The Rebel as an apology for capitalism, Sartre never forgave Camus for “playing into the hands of the right at a delicate historical moment” (p.257). But when Camus died tragically in an automobile accident in 1960 at age 43, Sartre wrote a glowing obituary, as he did the following year for Merleau-Ponty.
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Throughout much of history, Bakewell notes, philosophy has been primarily the purview of scholars who “prided themselves on their discipline’s exquisite uselessness” (p.17). Bakewell demonstrates how Sartre, Beauvoir and the other thinkers at her Existentialist Café broke that mold, shaping what she terms “philosophy as a way of life” (p.17). She further demonstrates how a skillful writer can bring philosophy as a way of life to life through a narrative exquisitely engaging for general readers and specialists alike.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
April 20, 2017