By a weird coincidence, I picked up, then had to buy, Sarah Bakewell’s At The Existentialist Café before realizing that I had recently read her biography/explication of Michel Montaigne, How To Live, this past summer. Or perhaps not a coincidence, since I share Bakewell’s interest in philosophy, and philosophers, preferably in a style Bakewell is very good at: clear, accessible, and sometimes funny language, explaining heady ideas while mixing in biographical information about the philosopher in question which is both interesting in its own right, and also helps us understand the thinking that led up to those heady ideas.
Like she did with Montaigne in How To Live, Bakewell combines both autobiography and analysis/explication in At The Existentialist Café, except here she’s writing about a whole group of (European, though mainly French and German, thinkers), the existentialists: Most of the book focuses on the biggies like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Martin Heidegger, but also Albert Camus, Karl Jasper, Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty) people who both influenced the biggies and were influenced by them (sometimes both).
We need to know about an author to appreciate her book, but I love that Bakewell, a brit, is also a PhD dropout (actually she dropped out of college twice). Thank the existential void she did, otherwise she would have been sucked into the academic void and never heard from again, except in stuffy academic journals no one every reads, where she would have had to publish or perish. Instead, by writing for the real world, she is able write like a real person, bringing her super-, and-encyclopedic-, knowledge to showing how philosophy, or at least (she would argue) existentialism, is both a practical and needful way of living in the world. i.e. philosophy is for everybody. Or should be. Towards the beginning of the book she give a run down on the basics:
—Existentialists concern themselves with individual, concrete human existence.
—They consider human existence different from the kind of being other things have. Other entities are what they are, but as a human I am whatever I choose to make of myself at every moment. I am free—
—and therefore I’m responsible for everything I do, a dizzying fact…
—By describing experience well, he or she hopes to understand this existence and awaken us to ways of living more authentic lives.
I have been drawn to the existentialists since college because they seemed to be the only recent philosophers to actually be thinking about an ethics, an ethical way to live in the world, versus at least some of the philosophy schools that came after, like deconstructuralism, structuralism and post-structuralism, et cetera, which seem/ed to just try to figure out what things mean. Like literature departments, the philosophy departments seemed to retreat into gated communities of their own vocabularies, whole languages seemingly, leaving us normal folk to wonder why, or how, they might apply to us. The existentialists like Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus not only ‘did’ philosophy, but were novelists and playwrites, experimenting with ways to write about philosophy in stories, making it accessible to all.
Thankfully. I could ‘get’ Sartre’s Nausea, but could not and still cannot get through Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Fortunately, in my college existentialism class, we read de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity right after and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s what he meant.’
Bakewell too sees the importance of story, not in the sense of fiction, but in anecdote’s from her subjects’ lives, and from non-philosophers around them. For example, hearing how Simone de Beauvoir grew up, hating her bourgeois family life, which cheated her out of an education that boys her age naturally got, we see that not only was she inclined to write about feminist issues (like in the classic The Second Sex) but also how she was drawn to existentialism and the idea of freedom, of being able choose (in fact, having to) and accepting responsibility for one’s choices and actions. Yes, and that in fact those two big ideas are interconnected: Bakewell points out that de Beauvoir’s existentialist ideas not only inform, but are key to The Second Sex. In fact, she thinks The Second Sex may be the main existentialist text:
Women….live much of their lives in what Sartre would have called bad faith, pretending to be objects…It is exhausting…A struggle rages inside every woman, and because of this de Beauvoir considered the problem of how to be a woman the existentialist problem par excellence.
Most interesting to me is Bakewell’s going-over of the Heidegger controversy, and his ties with the Nazis, based on recent documents that I was aware of but hadn’t read. The facts are damning: Heidegger was active in the National Socialists as rector of his university, on into WWII, and though he did later pull away and resign, her never really explained himself after the war. More fascinating is how Bakewell (who was doing her PhD on Heidegger when she dropped out) shows how his philosophy (like, say, in his most famous book, Being and Time) does point towards ways it could be taken to support the then-new German regime. Though she shows where his philosophy could be read as inevitably being against any kind of fascism, and also where he just seems to have bizarrely gone against his own philosophy. Leaving me, like Sartre and Jaspers and his former student/lover, Hannah Arendt, and many people, puzzled, since his thoughts on how to ‘be’ in the world, which I take as how to act, seem relevant and vital.
These human elements—that is, the messy personal lives—make At The Existential Café fascinating, in particular how these thinkers’ thinking was formed by events leading up to, through, and beyond, World War Two, inspired their work. Not for nothing did Sartre write Being and Nothingness during the German occupation of Paris, and after being in (and escaping from!) a POW camp. That feeling of nothingness about life, along Camus’ absurdity, were what everyone felt during those times, and after.
Writing about that many huge thinkers in that huge of a world event would seem to make for an epic huge serious tome. But Bakewell handles everything—the development in thinking, the feuds, the historical context—smoothly and gracefully and with good humor, with no sense of drudge-y academic philosophy-talk. Reading At The Existentialist Café is like sitting down with her at the Existentialist Café, as friends, and she’s pointing over at the table with all the eccentrics shouting over each other and she’s giving you the scoop, the skinny, the gossip, because she’s hung out with them, sat at the table. You want to sit at the table with her. Even just to listen.