Review: Sarah Bakewell – “At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others”

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and OthersAt the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others by Sarah Bakewell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The phenomenologists’ leading thinker, Edmund Husserl, provided a rallying cry, ‘To the things themselves!’ It meant: don’t waste time on the interpretations that accrue upon things, and especially don’t waste time wondering whether the things are real. Just look at this that’s presenting itself to you, whatever this may be, and describe it as precisely as possible. Another phenomenologist, Martin Heidegger, added a different spin. Philosophers all through history have wasted their time on secondary questions, he said, while forgetting to ask the one that matters most, the question of Being. What is it for a thing to be? What does it mean to say that you yourself are? Until you ask this, he maintained, you will never get anywhere. Again, he recommended the phenomenological method: disregard intellectual clutter, pay attention to things and let them reveal themselves to you.

This book changes minds.

I first read Sarah Bakewell when somehow stumbling upon her “How To Live”, a book about and around Michel de Montaigne; that book truly changed a lot in me, and made me delve into the facts on how humans are more alike and prone to sprawl within the mind than we may think we are.

Bakewell starts off much like in “How To Live”: she’s an excellent pointer-outer of interesting philosophical ideas, and she does this while using a sane, simple-to-understand language and style which goes a long way in explaining highly complex, and at times complicated, philosophical stuffs.

This book is inspiring and a labour of love and life, truly. Bakewell hasn’t injected herself too much into it, as I feel some writers are prone to as they’re keen to get inside their passions so much that they taint the work with their own experience. Instead, she writes succinctly and highly engaging about a plethora of stuffs.

So, what’s this book about?

To begin with, it’s about existentialism, what that is, and how it’s been seen for a long time. Personally, I’d love to see more of existentialism today.

At the core of existentialism, to me, is freedom. What is freedom, really? Is it merely to have the ability to do what thou wilt, to rephrase Aldous Huxley? Well, not really, I say. If conditioned to speak and behave in certain ways, you need to think outside of your patterns in order to see what freedom really can be. From the book, in regards to Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the main existentialist philosophers of the 21st century:

In his novels, short stories and plays as well as in his philosophical treatises, he wrote about the physical sensations of the world and the structures and moods of human life. Above all, he wrote about one big subject: what it meant to be free. Freedom, for him, lay at the heart of all human experience, and this set humans apart from all other kinds of object. Other things merely sit in place, waiting to be pushed or pulled around. Even non-human animals mostly follow the instincts and behaviours that characterise their species, Sartre believed. But as a human being, I have no predefined nature at all. I create that nature through what I choose to do. Of course I may be influenced by my biology, or by aspects of my culture and personal background, but none of this adds up to a complete blueprint for producing me. I am always one step ahead of myself, making myself up as I go along.

“as I go along”. Indeed.

Starting from where you are now, you choose. And in choosing, you also choose who you will be. If this sounds difficult and unnerving, it’s because it is.

Bakewell serves up information in steps, from early phenomenological thinkers up to ones that broke off with a lot of the early ones, also putting some history behind things. I mean, being and acting different in 2016 differs a lot from what went down in the mid-20th century. For example:

The institutions whose authority Sartre challenged in his writings and talks responded aggressively. The Catholic Church put Sartre’s entire works on its Index of Prohibited Books in 1948, from his great philosophical tome Being and Nothingness to his novels, plays and essays. They feared, rightly, that his talk of freedom might make people doubt their faith. Simone de Beauvoir’s even more provocative feminist treatise The Second Sex was also added to the list. One would expect political conservatives to dislike existentialism; more surprisingly, Marxists hated it too. Sartre is now often remembered as an apologist for Communist regimes, yet for a long time he was vilified by the party. After all, if people insisted on thinking of themselves as free individuals, how could there ever be a properly organised revolution? Marxists thought humanity was destined to move through determined stages towards socialist paradise; this left little room for the idea that each of us is personally responsible for what we do.

Also, these people lived as they taught, which is kind of the base for existentialism.

When Sartre was offered the Légion d’honneur for his Resistance activities in 1945, and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964, he rejected them both, citing a writer’s need to stay independent of interests and influences. Beauvoir rejected the Légion d’honneur in 1982 for the same reason. In 1949, François Mauriac put Sartre forward for election to the Académie française, but Sartre refused it.

Sartre’s experiences and quirks found their way even into his most serious philosophical treatises. This could make for strange results, given that his personal take on life ranged from bad mescaline flashbacks and a series of embarrassing situations with lovers and friends to bizarre obsessions with trees, viscous liquids, octopuses and crustaceans. But it all made sense according to the principle first announced by Raymond Aron that day in the Bec-de-Gaz: you can make philosophy out of this cocktail. The topic of philosophy is whatever you experience, as you experience it.

Sartre read Kierkegaard, and was fascinated by his contrarian spirit and by his rebellion against the grand philosophical systems of the past. He also borrowed Kierkegaard’s specific use of the word ‘existence’ to denote the human way of being, in which we mould ourselves by making ‘either/or’ choices at every step. Sartre agreed with him that this constant choosing brings a pervasive anxiety, not unlike the vertigo that comes from looking over a cliff. It is not the fear of falling so much as the fear that you can’t trust yourself not to throw yourself off. Your head spins; you want to cling to something, to tie yourself down — but you can’t secure yourself so easily against the dangers that come with being free. ‘Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom’, wrote Kierkegaard. Our whole lives are lived on the edge of that precipice, in his view and also in Sartre’s.

Bakewell also inserts a lot of what made the philosophers human, by which I mean that she’s made their personalities and non-philosophical choices show and blossom, hence making – I think – them seem more human than just a few oldies on a text book:

Philosophical conversations between thinkers who had invested so much of themselves in their work often became emotional, and sometimes downright argumentative. Their intellectual battles form a long chain of belligerence that connects the existentialist story end to end. In Germany, Martin Heidegger turned against his former mentor Edmund Husserl, but later Heidegger’s friends and colleagues turned their backs on him. In France, Gabriel Marcel attacked Jean-Paul Sartre, Sartre fell out with Albert Camus, Camus fell out with Merleau-Ponty, Merleau-Ponty fell out with Sartre, and the Hungarian intellectual Arthur Koestler fell out with everyone and punched Camus in the street. When the philosophical giants of each nation, Sartre and Heidegger, finally met in 1953, it went badly and they spoke mockingly of each other ever after. Other relationships were extraordinarily close, however. The most intimate was that between Sartre and Beauvoir, who read each other’s work and discussed their ideas almost every day. Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty had also been friends since their teenage years, and Sartre and Beauvoir were charmed by Camus when they first met him.

Theories are not only affected by history – perhaps most notably World War II – but also the inner workings of the philosophers, naturally. Bakewell does beauteous work in showing how theories and personalities intertwine and work out, perhaps best in her biographing the lives of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, as they lived, worked and loved for more than half a century.

It was also an extremely long relationship, lasting from 1929 to Sartre’s death in 1980. For fifty years, it was a philosophical demonstration of existentialism in practice, defined by the two principles of freedom and companionship. Lest this sound too earnest, their shared memories, observations and jokes bound them together just as in any long marriage. A typical joke began soon after they met: visiting the zoo, they watched an enormously fat and tragic-looking sea elephant which sighed and raised its eyes to heaven as if in supplication while the keeper stuffed its mouth with fish. From then on, every time Sartre looked glum, Beauvoir would remind him of the sea elephant. He would roll up his eyes and heave comical sighs, and they would both feel better.

Also, Heidegger, the philosophical giant, is very much on display, not at least how he embraced nazism, how this circled his beliefs and philosophy, and what one could make of it. Bakewell doesn’t avoid clear-cut analyses of that.

A little part of what makes this book mind-blowing, to me, is how minds are explored, and thought processes are dissected, in – to me – unusual ways. It’s utterly refreshing to read about; here’s a bit about Simone de Beauvoir:

She had a kind of genius for being amazed by the world and by herself; all her life she remained a virtuoso marveller at things. As she said in her memoirs, this was the origin of fiction-writing: it began at those times when ‘reality should no longer be taken for granted’. […] Of all the things Beauvoir wondered at, one thing amazed her more than any other: the immensity of her own ignorance. She loved to conclude, after early debates with Sartre, ‘I’m no longer sure what I think, nor whether I can be said to think at all.’ She apparently sought out men who were brilliant enough to make her feel at a loss in this way — and there were few to be found.

To quote popular western culture: boom.

There’s also Albert Camus in the book, as a nice cadence.

The journalist and short-story writer Albert Camus, who had come to the city from his home in Algeria, holed himself up in a room and listened to the street sounds outside his window, wondering why he was there. ‘Foreign, admit that I find everything strange and foreign’, he wrote in his notebook in March 1940. ‘No future’, he added in an undated note. Yet he did not let this mood stop him from working on literary projects: a novel, L’étranger (The Stranger or The Outsider), a long essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, and a play, Caligula. He called these his ‘three absurds’, because they all dealt with the meaninglessness or absurdity of human existence, a theme that seemed to come naturally during this time.

Also, there’s Merleau-Ponty:

Merleau-Ponty arguably left the most lasting intellectual legacy of all, not least in his direct influence on the modern discipline of ‘embodied cognition’, which studies consciousness as a holistic social and sensory phenomenon rather than as a sequence of abstract processes. Merleau-Ponty gave philosophy a new direction by taking its peripheral areas of study — the body, perception, childhood, sociality — and bringing them into the central position that they occupy in real life. If I had to choose an intellectual hero in this story, it would be Merleau-Ponty, the happy philosopher of things as they are.

Every philosopher’s great works are examined, as are the impacts. Bakewell does a great job at this, without involving her own ego, it seems to me. It’s a very easy read, despite the mind-blowing contents. Yet again, yeah, I use the term “mind-blowing”, but to me that’s what’s up!

All in all, this book is grand, epic and pretentious – in the very best sense of the word! I’ve bought this, and I will cherish having it with “How To Live”. I recommend this to all.

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