New life for existentialism

Jean-Paul Sartre, with his trademark pipe, founded French existentialism with classic works like “Nausea” and “Being and Nothingness.”
Jean-Paul Sartre, with his trademark pipe, founded French existentialism with classic works like “Nausea” and “Being and Nothingness.” Courtesy photo

“At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others” by Sarah Bakewell (Other Press, 448 pages, $25)

On her 16th birthday, Sarah Bakewell pooled her pence and bought a copy of “Nausea” by Jean-Paul Sartre. The novel (according to the publisher) would reveal “the alienation of personality and the mystery of being.” Whether Bakewell as a teenager had been pursuing these themes on her own remains an open question. But she was certainly struck by the power of Sartre’s writing, and wandered to a park in Reading, England, where she contemplated a tree, hoping to discover its utter contingency as the novel’s hero, Antoine Roquentin, had done. A contingency he called “nausea” because the tree had no necessary being. It could have been otherwise or not at all. It simply existed without reason. An unsettling insight.

Bakewell never succeeded in repeating Roquentin’s experience, but she was smitten by the mood of Sartre’s existentialism. Its grip on her would never leave, spurring the enduring questions of How to live? How to be free? How to be an authentic human being? How to choose? Eventually she immersed herself in French philosophy and even pursued a Ph.D. on Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher whose “Being and Time” had inspired Sartre and could be claimed to be the founding text of existentialism, even though Heidegger defiantly denied the label. He thought he had nothing in common with Sartre and his followers, safely shut away in his mountain hut on the edge of the Black Forest.

How those two philosophical giants and a host of supporting cast members, including the equally brainy Simone de Beauvoir, managed to take the intellectual world by storm is just one of the dozens of fascinating stories in Bakewell’s excellent “At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails,” part history, part summing up of abstract ideas, part personal reflection on one of the most influential and widespread philosophies of the 20th century – though defining it still presents a challenge.

Bakewell shows us in an easy, conversational style exactly why existentialism and its milieu mattered in the 1930s and ’40s. And why they matter today. She does it by focusing primarily on personalities, from the suave, handsome and genial Maurice Merleau-Ponty to the short, walleyed, ever-changing Sartre.

Her gift in this economically written text is her ability to capture a thinker’s persona and ideas together as a whole. We see how Albert Camus with his three “absurdities” (the novel “The Stranger,” the essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” and the play “Caligula”) remained on the fringe of the Sartre-Beauvoir circle, not easily fitting in because of his poor Algerian roots and his insistence on the meaninglessness of existence. Ever sympathetic to Sartre and his brood, Bakewell comes across as insensitive to Camus, making him a minor player in the existentialist drama, whereas he was instrumental in introducing thousands of U.S. students to the philosophy.

That is only one nit to pick. There are others, of course, but they seem petty when compared to the grand ambition of the book. Author of “How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer,” Bakewell has revived interest in one of the most lively and living philosophies of the modern era – for all its excesses, messes, misunderstandings, downright wrongheadedness and friendship-ending spats. Though Heidegger and Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology (which really got the existentialists going) reign as Olympian gods in Bakewell’s narrative, the earthly rounds of real life are ruled by Sartre and Beauvoir. If “rule” is the right term.

By the 1950s, existentialism had become so hip that it had turned into a self-parody. The black turtleneck sweaters, cocktails at sidewalk cafes, cigarette smoke wafting in the air, a general ennui about life in a city as vivacious as Paris. Someone had failed at marketing the ideas: all style and no substance.

Still, far-flung popularity was part of the mystique carved out during World War II and in the shadows of postwar Marxism, leading to the double Sartrean commitment to personal freedom and political activism. Creative choice, bad faith and authenticity remained the dominant themes until Sartre’s death in 1980.

As Bakewell reminds us, existentialism flourished as a philosophy of mattering, as a search for significance, for creating a code to live by. Phenomenology – its more arcane forerunner – sounded a call to ignore ideologies and go straight to experienced reality to discover the enduring stuff of philosophy, which had nothing to do with traditional ideas of epistemology, metaphysics or morality.

The result? A vision of human life as irresolvable, an ambiguous drama of freedom and contingency. When lived out, it led to a rich confusion of life, what the American philosopher William James had called the “bloom” of experience.

That bloom Bakewell opposes to our increasing, 21st-century reliance on our “scientific,” statistically predictable responses, lodged in the human brain, leaving each person reassuringly out of control, a mechanical dupe of his or her own biology and environment.

“So, do we really want to understand our lives and manage our futures as if we had neither real freedom nor a truly human foundation for our existence?” she asks. “Perhaps we need the existentialists more than we thought.”

This militant attitude in defense of existentialism is what makes Bakewell’s study so striking – the old tomes dug out of boxes, dusted off, readied for reflective reading, and inspiring a refreshing self-consciousness that we can no longer do without.

“At the Existentialist Cafe” will prove to be one of the best books on philosophy you will read this year. If, that is, you exercise your freedom in good faith.

Arlice Davenport is books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256.