The Imponderable Bloom
At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails (Other Press, 2016)
For an intellectual movement preoccupied with such august considerations as being, time, and death, existentialism has enjoyed an almost painless absorption into the popular culture since its grand Parisian heyday. With a few broad strokes—the beret, the black turtleneck, the cartoonish despair—a smokily glamorous world of cafés and conversation appears before us: a philosophical milieu, reincarnated. But, as with most caricatures, this reductive iconography comes at a cost: it belies the movement’s concussive detonation on mid-century culture, certainly, but it also neglects the movement’s relevance to our contemporary challenges. For this, we might be forgiven. With the passing of time, existentialism has acquired a certain aura of youth and pretension, an intoxicating intellectual affair that comes to look tawdry and shallow in the sober light of adulthood. Sarah Bakewell, a once-passionate devotee, experienced this fallout first hand. “It has become harder to revive that initial thrill,” she says, and I found myself nodding in commiseration. Has the caricature, then, won out?
Thankfully, the answer is no. Reviving “that initial thrill” is precisely what Bakewell’s new book accomplishes—and then some. At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails combines the exhilaration of initial discovery with the more considered evaluations of a mature thinker. The result is a warm and challenging work of intellectual history that retains something of existentialism’s glamor without ever sacrificing its vigorous interrogation. It also re-centers existentialism as a viable method of philosophically engaging with contemporaneity. Even if the context has shifted slightly, the question it asks remains just as relevant now as in the post-war years: what shall we make of a shattered world?
Bakewell, whose How to Live: A Life Of Montaigne won the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for biography, artfully embodies the story of existentialism in the saga of a European century. This is an intellectual history that is powered by biography as much as ideas. Eschewing the aridness of academe, the book instead depicts the philosophy as a kind of vascular scaffolding within which huge personalities grappled, intersected, broke apart, and coalesced. “I want to approach the lives through the ideas, and the ideas through the lives,” Bakewell writes, “because I think philosophy becomes more interesting when it is cast into the form of a real life.” Existentialism—perhaps best described by Sartre’s famous dictum “existence precedes essence”—is particularly suited to this kind of biographical orientation, what the writer Iris Murdoch calls “inhabited philosophy.” It is, after all, a charged, ambiguous, even erotic intellectual movement that remains attractively rooted in the glimmer and churn of human existence, a way of thinking composed, says Bakewell, of “vertigo, voyeurism, shame, sadism, revolution, music, and sex.” It is fundamentally a philosophy of, for, and about being human: making choices, pursuing authenticity, embracing responsibility for the life one has chosen.
Of course, part of existentialism’s lasting romance—what makes it so urgently human—is its ambassadors’ legendary charisma. No professorly types here; rather, we find the intellectual éclat of Simone de Beauvoir, the insatiability of Jean-Paul Sartre, the vigor of Albert Camus (Gauloise hanging handsomely from his lower lip). Bakewell makes fine use of her bewitching subjects, grounding deft but heady examinations of phenomenology and being in the warmth of anecdote. There is Emmanuel Levinas who discovered moral expectation in encountering the Other (while also “prone to snapping at any Others […] who asked stupid questions”), and the tragedy of Simone Weil, an ethicist of extremity who, in the radical attempt to put other people’s lives before her own, essentially starved herself to death at the age of thirty-four. And these are but two amongst a cast of dozens and dozens. Bakewell employs an ingeniously rangy method here, one in which the reader never feels buried beneath the often intimidating subject matter. When the weight of dialectical reason or the ethics of ambiguity threaten to stall the narrative, we are whisked to the next breakthrough or betrayal. This is a book of esoteric philosophy in which pacing—unusually, wonderfully—is a primary concern.
At the Existentialist Café can also be thought of as a kind of intellectual buddy flick in which its two stars—Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger—rarely share the same frame. (They met only once; a disappointment, it turns out.) Thankfully, Bakewell is uninterested in consecration. She proves herself an able judge of both intellectual content and personal character, building an implicit trust in her intuition as we wade into ever deeper philosophical and biographical waters. Sartre comes across as something of a whirling dervish of energy and ambition—much of it used in service to unfinished projects and naive political maneuvering. Bakewell celebrates his voraciousness (“He bursts out on all sides with energy, peculiarity, generosity and communicativeness”) while taking him to task for his many missteps (“He defended a range of odious régimes, and had a sick fascination with violence”). It’s a balanced, eccentric, and, finally, admiring portrait. Heidegger does not fare as well. If the German’s towering, deeply mystic oeuvre centers the book, the man himself is, for Bakewell, the most irredeemable of the thinkers explored here. Her examination of his briskly pragmatic early work, as well as his orphic, late-career Kehre (“turn”), celebrates the heft and beauty of Heidegerrian thought while never allowing his Nazism to escape our attention. He appears here, rightfully I think, as something of a damned man with a brilliant but tainted legacy. “Heidegger’s work is exhilarating,” says Bakewell, “but in the end it is a philosophy in which I cannot find a place to live.”
That richly subjective language—less a judgment than a kind of lived estimate—is indicative of much of the book’s tone. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote that a philosophy based on personal experience is merely “shop-girl metaphysics.” Bakewell mentions this anecdotally early on, and one detects something of a challenge here. After all, her book is nothing if not deeply concerned with the ways in which philosophy is acquired and deployed in our many varieties of living. In a cast of almost eighty characters, it is Bakewell herself who emerges as a sort of protagonist: the subject-in-time through whom existentialism continues to shift and speak. Her relationship with the philosophy began early, as a teenaged suburban existentialist enamored of the Dalí-painted cover of Sartre’s Nausea. “I wasn’t sure what alienation meant, although I was a perfect example of it at the time,” she says. Over the course of the book, the evolution of her feelings toward existentialism—deepened and complicated by time—comes across as honest and admirably self-aware. “Looking back at [the existentialists] has been a disorienting and stimulating experience,” she says, “like seeing familiar faces in a fairground mirror.” A textured and often personal account, made up of equal parts intellect and memory, lends experiential authority to her appraisals. It also enriches her final argument for biography as an essential component of intellectual history, a history driven, she convincingly asserts, by the complex lives of its many practitioners: “Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.”
Though existentialism fell out of favor in the wake of post-structuralism, Bakewell shows that the questions posed by Beauvoir and Sartre and Merleau-Ponty—What are we? What should we do?—remain fresh and necessary for the modern reader confronting permanent connectivity, surveillance, terrorism, and the ravages of late capitalism. Sweeping away the berets and wool turtlenecks, Bakewell’s book makes a passionate case for reinstating existentialism as an urgent, evergreen philosophy of everyday life. Watching a recent political debate, I found myself agreeing with Bakewell’s understated assessment: “We need the existentialists more than we thought.”
DUSTIN ILLINGWORTH writes about books and culture for the LA Times, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is the managing editor of The Scofield, a contributing editor for 3:AM Magazine, and a staff writer for Literary Hub.