Book review: “At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails,” by Sarah Bakewell
Special to the Daily
Unfortunately, the philosophy of existentialism is often regarded as passé. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Sarah Bakewell convinces us in her book, “At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails.” From the very start, Bakewell captures the animating spirit of the subject, as she writes that to be free and authentic is “exhilarating.” Existentialism, she writes, is “a way of doing philosophy” that reconnects it “with normal, lived experience.”
The author’s intense and life-long study of existentialism facilitates her clear explanations of the topic’s abstruse ideas, such as Martin Heidegger’s notion of authentic Being (he capitalizes “Being,” just as Plato capitalized the virtues of Justice, Beauty, Wisdom, etc.). Even to the informed reader of existentialism, Bakewell provides fresh insights and information on the subject. For instance, she clarifies Jean-Paul Sartre’s role in the French Resistance of World War II.
“Phenomenology” constitutes a great part of her exposition, featuring the philosophers Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. However, I sympathize with Karl Jaspers, who admitted that he did not know what phenomenology is. I think that phenomenology informs us of things which we already know. Bakewell, at the end of her book, designates Merleau-Ponty — a central character in her treatment — as her “intellectual hero.” My preference would be more with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and less on the phenomenology of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. However, Merleau-Ponty is a sympathetic character, and he does contribute to Bakewell’s idea of the Parisian “Existentialist Café.”
Bakewell provides endless details of the lives and habits of these existentialists, revealing much about their character. The relationship of Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre is most affecting in the way that they would stay up together, furiously writing and smoking (cigarettes).
She anchors her treatment of existentialism in a Francophile orientation, although she does provide a clear account of the complex German philosopher of existence, Heidegger. She recognizes that the two giants of existentialism are Sartre and Heidegger.
Early on in the book, we are convinced, with Sartre, that the main goal of existentialism is individual freedom. In truth, we recognize this as the universally sought condition; however, the requisite virtue for achieving this is authenticity. This virtue determines the quality of one’s freedom. It is Heidegger who emphasizes the quality of authentic Being.
This authenticity requires us to resist the conformity that society demands of us, to stay resistant to the herd mentality. The social other is a necessity, existentialism grudgingly admits, but this “otherness” is, more so, a danger. This is the concept, the valuable lesson that makes existentialism so relevant for us today. Although Heidegger recognized the bourgeoning influence of technology (which, in his day, would have included the telephone and the automobile) upon humanity, he would regard, with horror, our common obsession with smartphones, with connectivity, with our various electronic gadgets.
Those of us who would vigorously defend our individuality, are perhaps not aware of our pathological compulsion in the attention that we pay to various screens, to connectivity. This constant devotion to responding to the other — is robbing ourselves of our very autonomy, our individual authenticity. Existentialism teaches the principle that you, alone, are authentic — and free.
We can be grateful for Bakewell’s insightful interpretations of complex ideas. On Sartre’s “awakened individual” and his primary virtue of freedom, “It is a person who engages in doing something purposeful, in the full confidence that it means something. It is the person who is truly free.” Continuing this contemplation, she writes “the very things that enable us to be free — context, meaning, facticity, situation, a general direction in our lives.” This is marvelous concision, representing the essence of existentialism.
The flaws that I can detect are few in number. Perhaps more attention could have been paid to the forebears of existentialism, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, whose ideas (e.g, subjective truth) are so fundamental to the movement. But, again, Bakewell provides an eminently informed and readable introduction to the subject.
Rather than read the very dry philosophical works of Sartre or Heidegger, I suggest that a more congenial approach to existentialism is found in the fiction, drama and cinematic works of the genre, as in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”; Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”; Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”; and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.” Bakewell does not give sufficient consideration to these vital works. But then, that is my job.
Andy Schoeneman has taught the humanities at Colorado Mountain College for 16 years. He offers his course, Existential Literature & Philosophy, (for two credits) Tuesday afternoons, starting Jan. 17, at CMC — Breckenridge.
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