SARAH BAKEWELL At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, being, and apricot cocktails. Reviewed by Tracy Sorensen
At the Existentialist Café takes us into the lives and minds of the famous European philosophers of the 20th century.
John-Paul Sartre had bulgy eyes that looked off in different directions. When you sat down with him in a Paris café for a yarn about philosophy, it was best to fix your attention on the left eye; that way you could keep your moorings as the conversation proceeded.
You can see the bulgy, wayward eyes in photographs of the great existentialist, but what you might not be so familiar with is his aversion to goop. He loved many women, but Gwyneth Paltrow would never have been to his taste. The famous philosopher found all kinds of viscosity vaguely disturbing, because it reminded him of the nauseating contingency of the world. Contingency is the curse or blessing of freedom, where things might just as well be this way as that. It’s the opposite of necessity, or lack of choice, or – to put it another way – inevitability. Somehow, the philosophical concept of contingency and the material reality of slimy things blended together in Sartre’s mind. It’s a sensibility expressed in the book that made his name, Nausea. Freedom could literally make you sick.
Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café takes us into the lives and minds of the famous European philosophers of the 20th century with vividness and panache. In Bakewell’s hands we are not flies on the walls of the Left Bank cafés; we’re right there at the table, tasting the apricot cocktails, keeping our fix on Sartre’s left eyeball.
Speaking of apricot cocktails, Bakewell traces the embryo of existentialism to a moment near the turn of 1932-3, when Sartre was sitting in the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue du Montparnasse with his life partner Simone de Beauvoir (their long, hardy, open relationship lasted 50 years until his death) and another young philosopher, Raymond Aron. Philosophy, so long penned up in the abstract, in the workings of pure mind, needed to come down to earth; it needed to be about things as concrete as the glass on the table. ‘… you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!’ Aron said.
And that’s what they did. By the end of the second world war, existentialism had carved out a new place in the philosophical tradition. It was the philosophy of despair, of anguish – it is hard these days not to append ‘angst’ to the word ‘existential’ – but it was also robustly in the tradition of the stoics and epicureans, an interrogation of what it is to live a fully human, responsible life.
Bakewell discovered existentialism as a teenager and never let go of the thread, even as she followed philosophy’s postmodernist twists and turns. She studied philosophy at Essex University and then, inspired by Sartre, dropped out of formal education and kept reading. She read her postmodern continental philosophers but never let go of the spirit of those pre-war existentialist cafés. She suggests that the philosophical currents fashionable in the late 20th century – those of the post-structuralists and deconstructionists – have not aged well. She believes there’s ‘a certain refreshment of perspective to be had from revisiting the existentialists, with their boldness and energy’:
They did not sit around playing with their signifiers. They asked big questions about what it means to live an authentic, fully human life, thrown into a world with many other humans also trying to live.
In sometimes long sentences that are always vivid and never arcane (unlike the work of Sartre himself), Bakewell reflects a little of the sparkling energy of the existentialist tradition that is sometimes forgotten in its angsty tropes.
Sartre’s existentialism, writes Bakewell, is a philosophy of:
… expectation, tiredness, apprehensiveness, excitement, a walk up a hill, the passion for a desired lover, the revulsion from an unwanted one, Parisian gardens, the cold autumn sea at Le Havre, the feeling of sitting on overstuffed upholstery, the way a woman’s breasts pool as she lies on her back, the thrill of a boxing match, a film, a jazz song, a glimpse of two strangers meeting under a street lamp. He made philosophy out of vertigo, voyeurism, shame, sadism, revolution, music and sex. Lots of sex.
But it’s not all Sartre and de Beauvoir. All sorts of other characters appear in the cafés during the vibrant pre-war years, the serious and dangerous war years, and the tension-building post-war years that exploded in the social movements of the 1960s. Maurice Merleau-Ponty has a place at the table. He was apparently a good looking and well-adjusted chap. Unlike Sartre and de Beauvoir, who railed against bourgeois society, Merleau-Ponty was quite happy to mix with the scions of the upper-class as much as with his deliberately dressed-down existentialist comrades.
Following narrative threads that move out of the cafés across Europe, we discover that the phenomenologist Heidegger was a fascist sympathiser and that he was horrible to his mentor, Edmund Husserl.
Husserl and his ideas are important in Bakewell’s account. It was Husserl’s great slogan – ‘back to the things themselves’ – that first excited the proto-existentialists and got them thinking so hard about the nature of being. Exploring the outer dimensions of being by taking drugs was a popular route for intellectuals well before the more famous acid trips of the 1960s, and Sartre was no exception. Unfortunately – or fortunately – this mode of being didn’t suit him well. His hallucinations refused to go away afterwards; lobster-like beings followed him for months, and he felt he was being stared at by the facades of houses.
The gossip is there, but Bakewell’s book is much sturdier than a study in the lives and loves of celebrity philosophers. The philosophy itself – deftly explained for a general audience without a shred of dumbing down – is always paramount.
This book is a refreshing antidote to, for example, that other populariser of philosophy, Alain de Botton. This is not philosophy as consolation, as self-help, but philosophy as something far more bracing than that.
Above all, existentialism refuses to allow us wallow in ideas that let ourselves off the hook. The existentialists, says Bakewell, ‘constantly repeat the questions about freedom and being that we constantly try to forget’.
If life is contingent – if we really are free – then how best might we use our freedom in challenging times? In Sartre’s time the oncoming second world war made this an urgent question; our own age poses questions just as urgent. That we have some measure of freedom is made clear in the hours we spend in our own cafés, imbibing at our leisure. In a time of climate change, of refugees, of the strange case of Donald Trump, how are we choosing to use our freedom? This book reminds us that philosophy isn’t just fun; it’s of crucial importance.
Sarah Bakewell At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, being, and apricot cocktails Chatto 2016 HB 448pp $42.99
Tracy Sorensen is a writer who used to live in Newtown before taking a tree change to Bathurst, a centre for V8 car races and late-night philosophical discussions.
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