At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell review: a philosophical cocktail

Central to the philosophy of Sartre and Beauvoir was the everydayness of things

Celebrity philosophers: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre on the beach in Rio. Photograph: STF/AFP/Getty

Celebrity philosophers: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre on the beach in Rio. Photograph: STF/AFP/Getty

Sat, Jul 9, 2016, 02:17


Book Title:
At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails


Sarah Bakewell

Chatto & Windus

Guideline Price:

The popular fascination with existentialism in the two decades or so after the second World War was extremely peculiar, given that very few people, especially in the English-speaking world, knew what existentialism was. For most, it was taken to be what nowadays would be called a “lifestyle”, as exemplified by the habitués of two famous Saint-Germain cafes, which are still going strong, though with fantastically inflated prices: the Flore and the nearby Deux Magots. Much was made, for instance, of the singer Juliette Gréco, who, with her black polo-neck sweaters and long straight black hair, established the “existentialist look”. But the reigning king and queen of the era were Jean-Paul Sartre and his lover and lifelong companion, Simone de Beauvoir. And what a right royal time they had of it.

Yet while many of the existentialist crowd were, as WH Auden said of Yeats, “silly like us”, a few of them were serious thinkers, and existentialism – the term was invented by a journalist – was, and continues to be, a serious contribution to ways of doing philosophy.

Sarah Bakewell, author of a highly successful life of Montaigne, traces Sartre’s true beginnings as a philosopher to a meeting between Beauvoir and himself and his old schoolfriend Raymond Aron over apricot cocktails at the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue Montparnasse at the end of 1932. Aron, who, as the author of The Opium of the Intellectuals, would later become one of Sartre’s most formidable opponents, had been studying in Berlin and could tell the couple of a revolutionary way of approaching traditional philosophical concerns that went by the long but euphonious name of “phenomenology”. “If you are a phenomenologist,” Bakewell quotes Aron as saying, “you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!”

In Beauvoir’s account of this damascene moment, Sartre turned pale, as he realised the significance of such a philosophical approach to the ages-old question of what it is to be in the world. He had already encountered the work of Martin Heidegger, a translation of whose lecture What is Metaphysics? had appeared in a journal, along with one of Sartre’s own early essays, in 1931. As Beauvoir confessed, neither she nor her boyfriend could make much of the Heidegger piece – not surprisingly, given its difficulties both in thought and style – but now, listening to Aron’s account of phenomenology, they began to see the outlines of a philosophical method that would dispense with tired old conundrums and deal directly with the world of things, including human beings, and human Being – what Heidegger called Dasein.

Phenomenology had developed out of the work of Edmund Husserl, who had been inspired by the charismatic teachings of the former Catholic priest and Aristotelian scholar Franz Brentano. In the 1880s Husserl attended Brentano’s lectures, at the University of Vienna, on the relation between consciousness and the external world, and went on to develop an approach to thinking by which axioms and abstractions that had obsessed philosophers since Plato could be set aside or “bracketed” – Husserl used the Greek term epoché – so that full attention could be directed towards the phenomena, that is, the things which we all deal with in our quotidian lives.

For human beings, to be is to be conscious, and to be conscious is to be aware of our predicament as creatures “thrown”, as Heidegger would say, into a contingent world. This is what distinguishes human beings from the objects that surround them – such as a chestnut tree, for instance, which simply is, without having to bother its leafy head with questions about its origins, about its being here, and about its going hence.

This last, the question of death, was of particular significance, especially to Heidegger.

Self-consciousness, which as far as we know is exclusive to human beings, brings with it the knowledge that we shall die, and this, for Sartre no less than for Heidegger, raises all kinds of thorny issues to do with action, with authenticity and, above all, with freedom. For Heidegger, being is “Being towards death”. So is it also, to a certain extent, for Sartre – the title of his magnum opus, after all, is Being and Nothingness – but he and his fellow French existentialists were more inclined towards “ordinary” life than were their German mentors.

The poles of Heidegger’s career as a philosopher were the lecture hall and the mountain path; for Sartre and his circle they were the cafe and, more importantly, the street outside the cafe, where life endlessly teems. We might say that while Heidegger is concerned with thereness, which is one way of translating the word Dasein, what is truly of interest for Sartre and Beauvoir – and for other French existentialists such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty – is the everydayness of things.

Bakewell is very shrewd on the significant differences between Heidegger’s Blut und Boden notions of what philosophy is, and the more socially aware, engagé version favoured by Sartre and Beauvoir. While they – and Beauvoir especially – shared with Heidegger what Bakewell describes as a “raw amazement that there is something rather than nothing”, she says of Heidegger’s mole-like, death-obsessed way of thinking that “there is something of the grave in this vegetative world”.

In a lighter but no less telling instance, she quotes the satirical Philosophical Lexicon compiled by Daniel Dennett and Asbjorn Steglich-Petersen, which defines a “heidegger” as “a ponderous device for boring through thick layers of substance”, as in, “It’s buried so deep we’ll have to use a heidegger”.

Others, however, saw this deep-earth- borer in an altogether other light. Hannah Arendt had a passionate affair with him when she was his student – she and many other young intellectuals of the time found in him an electrifyingly new way of thinking about philosophy – and in later years defended his Nazi past by saying he was not a reactionary but only a “primitive”.

Another of his students, Georg Picht, wrote of him in these terms: “How can Heidegger the person be described? He lived in a thundery landscape. As we were taking a walk in the Hinterzarten during a severe storm, a tree was uprooted ten metres in front of us. That touched me, as if I could then visualise what was going on inside him.”

But if the business of life for Heidegger was a solitary trudge through a darkening wood, for Sartre and Beauvoir it was, at least in the early days, more of a flânerie along the Boul Mich. In 1944, Sartre wrote, in relation to Heidegger’s espousal of Nazism: “Heidegger has no character; there’s the truth of the matter.”

Sartre himself certainly had character, oodles of it, which was part of his problem: he was simply too fascinating for his own good. To look at, he was not what anyone, even Simone de Beauvoir, would have felt compelled to write home about – indeed, looking at him cannot have been easy, since he was profoundly wall-eyed – yet he was an immensely attractive figure: one of the very few instances of a serious philosopher who was at the same time a worldwide celebrity. He first realised the extent of his fame, Bakewell writes, when he gave a public talk at the Club Maintenant in Paris in October 1945: the box office was mobbed, people passed out, chairs were damaged. “As a photo caption writer for Time magazine put it, ‘Philosopher Sartre. Women swooned.’”

Yet in a sense Beauvoir was a more formidable figure than her partner, and perhaps an equally strong thinker. Bakewell considers Beauvoir’s study of the position of women in the world, The Second Sex, published in 1949, to be “the single most influential work ever to come out of the existentialist movement”.

This is a large claim, if the book is to be set beside Heidegger’s Being and Time, for instance; no doubt it depends on how one defines the word “influential”. Bakewell is surely correct, though, when she writes that the “second sex” must live much of their lives in a state of Sartrean mauvaise foi, “pretending to be objects”, and that therefore there is a struggle raging inside every woman: “and because of this Beauvoir considered the problem of how to be a woman the existential problem par excellence”.

In the Existentialist Cafe is a wonderfully rich, informative, quietly learned and delightfully humorous study of a fascinating period in the troubled history of the 20th century. Bakewell finds just the right combination of enthusiasm, admiration and irreverence, and is never afraid of laughing at her subject; her range of reference stretches from Kierkegaard to Ridley Scott, from Emmanuel Levinas to The Incredible Shrinking Man.

She has reservations about the enduring worth of existentialism – “Perhaps phenomenology . . . is the truly radical school of thought” – yet she reaffirms its value as a mode of thinking about what it is to be human. She writes: “We can explore the directions the existentialists indicate without needing to take them as exemplary personalities, or even as exemplary thinkers. They are interesting thinkers, which I believe makes them more worth our trouble.”

John Banville is an author and critic and former literary editor of The Irish Times