In the company of freedom lovers

Long-read

In the company of freedom lovers

Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café is an inspiring portrait of thinkers for whom the personal is philosophical.

Terri Murray

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At the very end of At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails, Sarah Bakewell tells us that when she first read Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, she was enchanted with the concepts, not with their inventors’ lives. Thirty years later, Bakewell has revised her opinion: people are vastly more interesting than ideas.

It makes At the Existentialist Café an exciting read. It is at once a multi-biography, a chronicle of a century, an introduction to existential philosophy and a history of ideas. It reveals just how and why, to quote the second-wave feminist mantra, ‘the personal is political’. Bakewell shows, in vivid and colourful prose, how the existentialists’ ideas were interwoven with their personal and political histories. She describes how everyone who knew Maurice Merleau-Ponty could feel a glow of wellbeing emanating from him, or the way Simone de Beauvoir always took the role of philosophical novice beside him, despite the fact that she had beaten him in the national philosophy exams. Bakewell transforms philosophers into personalities – characters who come to life and leap off the page in three dimensions, with their drug addictions, love affairs, ailments and betrayals.

She also demonstrates how existentialism was an ongoing, lived response to a whole European century with its two World Wars, the French experience of defeat and occupation, the new expectations of the postwar period, the anti-conformism of the 1950s and the idealism and revolutionary spirit of the 1960s. While the existentialists changed their thinking as the world changed, they also contributed to changing that world.

The existentialists Bakewell venerates viewed philosophy as social and intellectual intercourse, embodied in the relationship between Sartre and de Beauvoir, whose collaboration blended the personal with the philosophical. Their romantic relationship was shaped, primarily, by their common rejection of bourgeois values like marriage and parenthood, and their preference for outward-directed engagement with wider society. They wanted to live their theory of freedom. Neither became conventional, tenured academics.

Bakewell outlines the extent to which later generations are heir to existentialism’s progressive values. Even Martin Luther king’s philosophy of non-violent resistance was fed by his reading of Sartre, Heidegger and the German–American existentialist theologian Paul Tillich. Arguably, the existentialists’ legacy is as rich and enduring as that of any parent.

In addition to being an excellent writer, Bakewell is also a very adept teacher. She affords her reader a refreshingly accessible introduction to some of Continental philosophy’s most daunting concepts. For example, she first breaks Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology down into several palatable ideas, and then illustrates how one ‘does’ phenomenology with reference to a simple a cup of coffee (or indeed, an apricot cocktail). She also explains phenomenology’s usefulness for describing religious or mystical experiences from the inside, without having the burden of proving that they represent the world accurately. The point, she explains, is to bring us back to the ‘things themselves’ – phenomena liberated from their conceptual baggage. And this gives us back the world we live in. It works most effectively on the concrete material of our actual lives, the stuff we ordinarily don’t think of as material for philosophy: a drink, a melancholy song, a moment of boredom on a park bench.

Besides restoring this personal world in its richness, Husserl’s phenomenological approach also changes how we think about ourselves. Instead of trying to find out what the human mind is, phenomenologists focused on what it does and how it works in the context of agency and intentions. Bakewell appreciates how all of this laid the conceptual groundwork that liberated Sartre and other existentialists to write so adventurously about everything from café waiters to trees.

It may be fashionable to scoff at these philosophies as passé or to assume that they are mere dusty relics of a bygone 20th-century milieu, but Bakewell shows how and why phenomenology and its brainchild, existentialism, remain relevant. And the mere fact that the Catholic Church put Sartre’s entire oeuvre (and later de Beauvoir’s feminist masterpiece The Second Sex) on its Index of Prohibited Books ought to be enough to pique the curiosity of any undergraduate philosophy student.

The anti-racists and feminist campaigners of the 20th century shared an existentialist commitment to action that is in rather short supply nowadays. Bakewell describes how existentialists believed the status quo could be understood in intellectual terms, but should not be accepted in life. At a time when postmodernism has all but obliterated any sense of intellectual self-confidence not derived from its one sacrosanct truth (that there can be no universal truth and no common humanity), existentialism gives us back a sense that we can say something about our lived experiences without grovelling apologies. We can obey the postmodern commandment to set aside all claims to a grand overarching truth and yet still have something valid to say about the world as we experience it, here and now.

Structuralists, post-structuralists, deconstructionists and post-modernists tend to treat philosophy as a game in which signs, symbols and meanings are endlessly analysed and redefined. Bakewell depicts these postmodern philosopher-critics pulling out odd words from each other’s texts to make the whole edifice collapse, or scouring the writers of the past to find ever more refined and unlikely particles of signification. As Bakewell points out, these thinkers can be stimulating, but they have also turned philosophy into an abstract landscape, stripped of the active, impassioned beings who occupied it in the existentialist era. The existentialists did not sit around playing with their signifiers. They asked big questions about what it means to live an authentic, fully human life, thrown into a world with many other humans also trying to live their own lives.

Bakewell reminds us that existentialist philosophers can still provide a way to engage with questions raised by new technologies and political realities, from mass surveillance and genome editing, to identity politics and multiculturalism. Take Sartre on ‘bad faith’ for example. He argued we are in bad faith when we portray ourselves as passive creations of our race, our class, job, history, nation, family, childhood, even our subconscious. Bakewell doesn’t spell it out, but there are glimpses of how the existentialist approach to the situated self provides a critique of both 21st-century identity politics, which conceives of individuals as ‘embedded’ in a particular cultural, social or ideological context, and multiculturalism, which emphasises how culture shapes the values, norms and assumptions through which an individual forms his identity and his worldview. Existentialism does not claim that these factors are unimportant or that we should blame victims of systemic injustice. Rather, certain conditions ‘situate’ each of us, and constitute the conditions, political and personal, within which I exercise my freedom and define myself. As Bakewell remarks, we should not expect freedom to be anything less than fiendishly difficult. Still, existentialists remind us that freedom cannot be avoided. Even the decision not to confront it or to pretend we are mere playthings of nature’s laws is a free choice.

If all of this seems a bit too easy, de Beauvoir corrected the tendency to shrug off circumstances and social status as mere ‘background props’ by emphasising the connection between a person’s habitual way of acting (her ‘fundamental project’) and her wider situation as a gendered, historical being. She gave more weight to the difficulty of breaking out of such constraints, influences and habits. She knew very well how an alienated sense of self can come from the outside, from cultural expectations and roles, which then become so routine and ‘normal’ as to appear inevitable. Yet she maintained her belief that we remain existentially free, and refused to resign herself to the status of passive ‘victim’. Rather, she wrote books and actively became the change she wanted to see in the world.

The existentialist revaluation of identity also applies to current debates between homosexual essentialism (the ‘born that way’ thesis) and constructionism (the ‘it’s a choice’ thesis). We see here how the issue was played out between Jean Genet and Sartre. Genet had been an object of Sartre’s admiration and was even ‘canonised’ by Sartre in Saint Genet, a biographical work that also became a treatise of ideas. Sartre noted the way in which one can take other people’s labels and decide what to do with them, transforming persecution or oppression into art or freedom. Sartre especially admired how Genet, through a series of reversals and creative manoeuvres, came to own his alienation and his outsider status as thief, vagrant, homosexual, and prostitute. Nevertheless, while Genet found Sartre’s assessment of his life flattering, the two never agreed about homosexual essentialism. Genet always regarded his homosexuality as more like left-handedness or hair colour than as a voluntary response to his social environment.

Bakewell suggests that existentialist ideas and attitudes are the impetus behind modern Europeans’ response to our culture of excess consumer choice and loss of political empowerment. It is our vague longing for a more ‘real’ way of living, says Bakewell, that leads us to seek something akin to existentialist ‘authenticity’ in yoga retreats, eco-tourism, vegan diets and ‘unplugging’ ourselves from the matrix of digital technology. She sees existential anxiety closely intertwined with technological anxiety in films and popular culture, with the question of freedom possibly posing the greatest challenge we’ll have to face in the early 21st century. We will need to tackle anew questions like how much of our freedom we’re prepared to give away to remote corporate entities in exchange for comfort and convenience. In an era when the shelves groan with science magazines and books telling us that we are little more than passive products of our own biology and environment, prone to predictable responses, it is tempting to embrace the view that we do not really choose anything we do. Yet Bakewell senses, correctly, that this is a cop out. We claim to find deterministic notions disturbing, she says, but perhaps are reassured by the idea that we are not responsible for what we do. That idea lets us off the hook. Indeed, Bakewell cites research showing that those who have been encouraged to think they are unfree are inclined to behave less ethically.

Bakewell highlights one aspect of Heidegger’s work that really merits attention from the 21st-century reader: his double interest in technology and ecology. In his 1953 lecture The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger argued that our technology is not merely a set of clever devices: it reveals something fundamental about our existence that calls for philosophical reflection. We need to question technology’s ultimate purposes and uses, and this goes beyond practical questions about how to make technology work more effectively.

Above all, Bakewell’s stimulating account of the existentialists is a rousing reminder that philosophy’s central question has always been ‘how ought I to live?’, not ‘what ought I to think?’. For Bakewell, existentialist philosophers remain of interest not because they are right or wrong, but because they are concerned with life, and they pose the two biggest questions: What are we? And what should we do? When she remarks, ‘Give me that any day, and keep the tasteful miniatures for the mantelpiece’, I could not agree more.

Terri Murray is a director of studies at the Fine Arts College Hampstead and author of Feminist Film Studies: A Teacher’s Guide (2007).

At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, by Sarah Bakewell, is published by Chatto & Windus. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by: Getty Images.

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