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Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails
by sarah bakewell
other press, 448 pages, $25

More than seven decades have passed since philosophy held court on the world-historic stage, in the cafes and jazz halls of wartime Paris. For those who lament the decline of the “public intellectual,” this period richly serves the needs of nostalgia, conjuring chic melancholy, debates conducted in a tobacco haze, and the evergreen romance of La Résistance. To say something fresh about the period would seem a tall order. Key actors, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, recorded their thoughts in tomes and essays, which have in turn spawned shelves of commentary. Sarah Bakewell nevertheless rises to the challenge in her engrossing new book, to which she has given a whimsical title: Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails.

The title reflects the author’s bright, accessible tone, but also belies the erudition she brings to her subject. Bakewell gives pride of place to the Parisian café, that symbol of civilized dialogue and bonhomie. “When you peer through the windows,” she writes,

the first figures you see are the familiar ones, arguing as they puff their pipes and lean towards each other, emphasizing their points; the waiters glide between the tables. In the largest group in front, a dumpy fellow and an elegant woman in a turban are drinking with younger friends. Toward the back, others sit, at quieter tables.

We recognize at the front table Sartre and Beauvoir, who hold a central place on the book’s dust jacket. It’s a cozy scene, and Bakewell invites us to take our place and mingle. At the same time, her narrative carries the reader far from the chummy ambience of the Left Bank. Indeed, some of the book’s most compelling pages concern German phenomenology, to which Raymond Aron introduced Sartre and Beauvoir (over drinks, of course) in the closing days of 1932. The French existentialists remained outside academia, lending credibility to their anti-establishment rhetoric. But the great contemporary philosophers who energized their writing—Husserl and Heidegger—worked deep inside the German university, where they exerted their influence through popular lectures and a devoted coterie of students.

Intrigued and excited, Sartre and Beauvoir set out to learn and incorporate this new philosophy of intentionality, which promised a return to “the stuff of real life,” including apricot cocktails, the chilly sea, café waiters, mugs of beer, and gnarly tree roots. Determined to read the phenomenologists in German, Sartre traveled to Berlin in 1933 to study at the French Institute. (That was the year the Nazis rose to power, and Sartre’s time in Germany gave him a frightening glimpse of things to come.) Readers seeking entry to this daunting subject will find a welcome companion in Bakewell. Like a good tour guide, she moves through dense terrain with ease and enthusiasm, drawing attention to major points of interest—places to watch for when we set off on our own. Neither Sartre nor Beauvoir found the going easy. In fact, they initially dismissed Heidegger’s “What is Metaphysics?” as incomprehensible. Even so, Sartre came back eager to brew his own philosophy, one that mixed his peculiar obsessions with borrowed ingredients. To the new philosophy of intentionality he added the pungent attacks of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche on systematic philosophy and its serene disregard of individual choices.

In their different ways, Sartre and Beauvoir derived from their studies a philosophy of freedom that accentuates the burden of choice. In their atheistic world, they find no guide to action in nature or duty. Human beings have no nature, and rules cannot resolve the world’s ambiguity. But people must choose, and their identities arise from the choices they make. They embody a “nothing” (i.e., a consciousness) that inspires intense anxiety but also makes freedom and meaning possible.

Here we recognize the themes of anguish and vertigo that made existentialism notorious in its day, synonymous with black turtlenecks and Continental ennui. In truth, existentialism added little to its sources. We recognize in Sartre’s view of freedom Kierkegaard’s description of the self as a balance of possibility and necessity. Sartre emphasizes possibility (or the worm of nothingness, as he memorably puts it), but he does not imagine people acting in a void. He would certainly like, as Bakewell puts it, “to be free of bonds, of impediments and limitations and viscous clinging things”—which sounds a lot like Kierkegaard’s despair of the infinite. Such freedom, of course, can never occur. Indeed, Sartre must rule it out on phenomenological grounds, as he interprets them. Since consciousness is, in his view, a nothingness, it must take aim at something external, and that “something” happens to be the vicious, opaque, contingent stuff of the world—the same stuff that fills Roquentin, the anti-hero of Nausea, with unease and disgust. The world that constrains us (the “in-itself”) also constitutes our sole field of action.

Given its derivative nature, why did French existentialism achieve a fame surpassing that of its sources? Bakewell’s book sheds light on that question. Derivative they might have been, but Sartre and Beauvoir were brilliant and hugely productive. Sartre, in particular, had a grand talent for synthesis and keen psychological insight, two gifts on display in Being and Nothingness. Others members of the scene—especially Maurice Merleau-Ponty—made enduring contributions to phenomenology while ducking the glare of publicity. But the existentialists’ appeal lies also in the story of their time. A tale of large personalities meeting and clashing against the glittering backdrop of Paris makes a ripping good yarn, even when Bakewell reminds us that wartime Paris was in fact a place of fear and grinding hardship. (For one thing, intellectuals worked in cafes not to cut a glamorous figure, but to escape their unheated dwellings.)

Nevertheless, I find my eyes wandering to the quieter tables at the back of the café. I find it heartening to see Karl Jaspers receive his due. His observant presence has, for me, a dimming effect on the other patrons; it becomes harder to view them in a flattering light. For all their talk of freedom, Sartre and Beauvoir lined up to salute some of the most crushing regimes of their time—in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and elsewhere. Heidegger, for his part, found “authenticity” in the brutality of National Socialism. That he dominates departments of a Continental bent while the princely Jaspers has slipped from view does not exactly cheer the heart. At the moment, we seem poised to enter a new age of extremes, and the dark excitements of blood and soil threaten to eclipse what Jaspers held dear: reasoned communication and a principled cosmopolitanism. In an age of distrust and renewed tribalism, I have no doubt that Jaspers will offer surer guidance to people of goodwill than the obscurantist Heidegger.

Jaspers champions not the constricted reason of the eighteenth century philosophes, but a reason that embraces scientific inquiry while pressing outward to transcendence. His philosophy is not Catholic, as Sartre mistakenly claims in “Existentialism Is a Humanism”; his rejection of positive doctrine cancels that possibility. Catholics do appear, however, at the edges of Bakewell’s narrative. She gives slight attention to Gabriel Marcel, noting that his brand of Christian existentialism requires fuller treatment than her book can accommodate. Other religious figures make brief but stirring appearances, including Husserl’s great disciple Edith Stein and the philosopher Herman Van Breda, a Franciscan friar who worked with a Benedictine nun to preserve Husserl’s manuscripts from Nazi destruction. Risking their safety, they smuggled the papers across Europe like characters in a spy novel. Such people will never receive the attention given to people Sartre, Beauvoir, and Albert Camus.

How thinkers like Stein and Marcel might engage the anti-dogmatic Jaspers remains a matter of great interest. In fact, I submit that anyone who could pull up a chair at that table would have by far the best seat in the house.

Richard T. Whittington holds a Ph.D in philosophy from Baylor University and serves as a priest for the diocese of Little Rock.

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