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Thursday, June 22, 2017

At the Existentialist Cafe

Philosophy is a subject I've always steered clear of-- I never took a course on it in college, and when I hear about it my mind kind of glazes over. But I read good things about Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Cafe, and while there are chunks of it I still don't understand, she does a pretty good job of doing two things: explaining just what existentialism is, and putting us into the world of the people who espoused it.

What is existentialism? Bakewell jokes; "From the mid-1940s, ‘existentialist’ was used as shorthand for anyone who practised free love and stayed up late dancing to jazz music." Black turtlenecks and berets were their uniform (although she writes that before that, lumberjack plaid was the rage). Of its origins, she writes: One can ... narrow the birth of modern existentialism down to a moment near the turn of 1932–3, when three young philosophers were sitting in the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue du Montparnasse in Paris, catching up on gossip and drinking the house specialty, apricot cocktails."

These three philosophers were Jean-Paul Sartre, his companion and lover Simone de Beauvoir, and Raymond Aron. Sartre boiled down his theory to three words: "Existence precedes essence." If you, like I, still don't know what that means, Bakewell says that most of what Sartre wrote about what it was to be free. Or, "It is sometimes said that existentialism is more of a mood than a philosophy, and that it can be traced back to anguished novelists of the nineteenth century, and beyond that to Blaise Pascal, who was terrified by the silence of infinite spaces, and beyond that to the soul-searching St. Augustine, and beyond that to the Old Testament’s weary Ecclesiastes and to Job, the man who dared to question the game God was playing with him and was intimidated into submission. To anyone, in short, who has ever felt disgruntled, rebellious, or alienated about anything."

Existentialism grew out of something called phenomenology, which was taught by the German Edmund Husserl, who, along with the previous century's Georg Hegel, are the proto-existentialists. What is phenomenology? "It meant stripping away distractions, habits, clich├ęs of thought, presumptions and received ideas, in order to return our attention to what he called the ‘things themselves’. We must fix our beady gaze on them and capture them exactly as they appear, rather than as we think they are supposed to be." In short, "phenomenologists describe," while "existentialists concern themselves with individual, concrete existence."

If that makes your head hurt, there is still much to enjoy about this book, which is full of a lot of gossip, quarrels, and affairs. In addition to the three French philosophers mentioned, Bakewell also writes extensively about Martin Heidegger, whom she calls "the twentieth century’s most brilliant and most hated philosopher." He wrote an influential text called Being and Time, but also was for a time a Nazi, and never repudiated the Nazi philosophy.

We also see Albert Camus, the author of The Stranger, one of the most read texts from the movement, who fell out with Sartre and Beauvoir over politics--he was dead set against any kind of violence. The wavering of these people about communism is almost comical--they like it, then they don't when they realize that Stalin is killing a lot of people. The invasion of Prague in 1968 finally ended it for them.

The heart of the book is Sartre and Beauvoir. They had a very long relationship--until his death in 1980--though they had an open relationship. He was five-feet tall and had a lazy eye, but was still a ladies' man. She had affairs with Nelgon Algren and Claude Lanzmann, and wrote what Bakewell considered the most important work to come out of the existentialist movement: The Second Sex, a revolutionary tract on feminism.

Other characters to cross the pages are Jean Genet, who was always with the underdog, and if the underdog succeeded to become top dog, he would change sides; Hannah Arendt, who in writing about Adolph Eichmann's trial, coined the term "banality of evil," and Colin Wilson, who at 24 wrote a publishing sensation called The Outsider, which was later found to be riddled with errors.

Before I read this book I knew very little about any of this--I've read No Exit by Sartre and The Maids by Genet, but not The Second Sex or The Stranger, not to mention Sartre's magnum opus, Being and Nothingness. But, as Bakewell reminds us, existentialism is all around us. Just think of any of a number of Woody Allen films.

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