Outsiders and Marxists and Nazis ‘At the Existentialist Cafe’

When it comes to reconstructing the lived experience of historical figures and philosophers, the devil is in the details, and the devil is probably a Nazi.

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails
Sarah Bakewell
August 2017

A Jew, a Nazi, and a Feminist walk into a bar… That’s not the beginning of an off-color joke; it’s the backdrop of Sarah Bakewell’s new book, a quasi-biographical-historical-philosophical exploration of existentialist philosophers of the 20th century, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails. Not surprisingly, things end badly for the Jew, the Nazi’s ideas are reconsidered in light of the holocaust, and the feminist’s lived experience is noticeably downplayed. Also, there’s some alcohol consumption and a couple of bar fights.

In chapter one, Bakewell introduces readers to the main players in her rather lengthy tome through a semi-allegorical scene set in a Paris café, featuring Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty among them. Although the story struggles to get started in the beginning – it’s unclear what Bakewell is attempting at the outset – the text quickly evolves into a rich, detailed, and meticulously researched biography of existentialist philosophy undergoing the growing pains of 20th-century society changing as a result of technology, war, and politics.

Throughout my reading of Bakewell’s unconventional text, I was eerily reminded again and again of the 2016 US presidential race. I should note that nowhere in Bakewell’s book does she reference contemporary American politics of any kind — the political history described in the book are mostly Eurocentric — but American readers will find it a challenge to get through it without thinking of the crazy-haired corporate tycoon turned GOP loudmouth battling wits with an equally crazy-haired democratic socialist over issues of race and class — as they’re reading about how the polarizing political views shaped much of the last century’s philosophy.

Or maybe that’s just me.

As the Nazi party gained power in the late ’30s its influence on the lives of writers and thinkers showed how popular fervor took hold of people at all levels of life, from the Jewish sisters hiding in a convent while continuing to write (eventually being captured and murdered in a gas chamber), to well-known French celebrities reading classical literature while locked away behind German barbed wire, to the complicity of German-born thinkers with the party line. Bakewell spends her time exploring the impact of world events on the lives of real philosophers and authors who lived through those times, whether they identified as Marxists or Nazis, or just saw themselves as outside of all established partisanship.

One necessary adjustment was learning to put up with the idiotic and moralistic homilies emanating every day from the collaborationist government – reminders to respect God, to honour the principle if the family, to follow traditional virtues … backed by a threat of violence.

No, that’s not a quote from a recent US presidential debate; it’s a British author’s description of French citizen Simone de Beauvoir consideration of her living circumstances under German occupation during World War II. There’s an old saying: Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. But I digress; this is a review of Bakewell’s book, not a polemic on the problematic idiosyncrasies of a two-party system. Still, readers may find the similarities hard to ignore.

At one point in Bakewell’s text, a few of the key figures (and by extension, the author herself) pose a concerning question: Should we students of philosophy and the progeny of existentialist ideas be concerned that German philosopher Martin Heidegger was a Nazi? The various dramatis personae debate this issue both head-on and obliquely in the post-WWII years, variously falling out with Heidegger, watching him in his isolated mountain home become ever more curious and detached, arguing in public.

Bakewell, however, free of the limitations of the actual events, gives her readers a more definitive answer: Yes. Yes, we should. Heidegger was a Nazi and unapologetic about it to the end. Although Bakewell spends a great deal of the book exploring the complexities of Heidegger’s philosophical ideas and the complications of life in mid-20th century Germany, she can’t shake off the implications of this single aspect of the complicated philosopher.

For Sartre and Beauvoir, living in occupied France during the war years (and for Sartre, in a German POW camp as well) fascism was a bit easier to identify as undesirable. One imagines de Beauvoir recoiling with horror at a piece of rotten meat crawling with insects, and sympathizes as she eats it anyway to avoid starving. Her story, perhaps more than any of the others, resonates with more reality and tactile empathy, as she not only ponders her world through a phenomenological and existentialist lens but also as a woman who lives in her world.

Oh, and she came up with that female thing. You know what I’m talking about. What was it called? Oh right: Feminism. This, perhaps more than any other aspect of Bakewell’s book seems understated.

de Beauvoir’s penning of The Second Sex in 1949 is certainly given its time in the spotlight, but this groundbreaking piece of literature receives no more emphasis than bar fights with Albert Camus, Sartre’s death and funeral, or Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s good parenting skills and bad drunken flirting. Not that these incidents aren’t relevant – certainly the recovery and examination of the players’ lived existences in parallel to their existentialism is the main point of the book, but de Beauvoir’s contribution to contemporary feminism, though acknowledged, seems underplayed.

Of The Second Sex Bakewell even remarks that “it can be considered the single most influential work ever to come out of the existentialist movement” begging the question: Why does Bakewell use passive voice to make that relatively safe claim? Linguistic caltrops like this trip up the reading of the text, but such flaws are minor and don’t detract too much from the majority of the book’s engrossing level of detail.

It’s interesting to note that the biggest flaw is actually the first chapter’s inability to get to its main point. In fact, the opening reads like the introduction to an unrevised graduate dissertation project, forcing the young scholar’s major professor (and perhaps an irritated book reviewer) to scrawl in the margin “Yes, but what is your thesis?” Towards the very end of the 30-plus page first chapter, the author finally states what seems to be her goal: “I want to explore the story of existentialism and phenomenology in a way combining the philosophical and biological.” To do this, Bakewell does indeed trace a long, rich history of the lives of a variety of great 20th century philosophers and authors alongside their personal lives; public affairs, feuds, falling outs; and world events.

She also interjects tidbits of her own life, which occur at irregular intervals and are abrupt, intrusive, and unnecessary. One wonders why the author thought the reader would care what her 16-year-old self felt about Heidegger. Fortunately, these detours are contained to short passages that don’t descend too far down angsty teenage navel-gazing rabbit holes.

Bakewell argues that (re)reading existentialist philosophy texts by Sartre, de Beauvoir, and the others is a valuable proposition for considering contemporary crises of life. I confess that reading her biographical-historical-philosophical thingy (genre here hard to pin down) did make me want to re-examine many of the original texts that she references or summarizes. (Except for Heidegger. Did I mention he was a Nazi?) I might even do this reading in a dimly lit coffee shop while wearing a chunky black turtleneck and chain-smoking filter-less cigarettes.

On a related note, in 1957 Norman Mailer wrote an essay titled “The White Negro” addressed to “the American existentialist – the hipster”. Mailer was writing about hipsters before it was cool.

Towards the end of At the Existentialist Café, Bakewell poses the question, “If a lot of people with incompatible interests all claim that right is on their side, how do you decide between them?” (Here again, American politics comes to mind.) She then notes that Sartre offers the answer to that question by saying that every questionable situation can be solved “by asking how it looks to ‘the eyes of the least favoured’… You just need to work out who is most oppressed and… adopt their version of events as the right one.” Of course, the author notes that the devil is in the details. Who decides who is most oppressed? I can’t help but conclude that the answer to that question is actually the source of a lot of the world’s problems, past and present. Bakewell is right “that human existence is difficult and that people often behave appallingly, yet they also show how great our possibilities are.”

If readers can get past chapter one, and into the actual substance of the text, they will find a wealth of fascinating stories and complexities of philosophy applied to the real-life events of real-life philosophers, that may even apply to contemporary contexts. By the end of the book, a reader may even find herself in agreement with the author on the concepts of freedom, being, and that “ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so”. Though that reader may also wonder about the paucity of apricot cocktails.

Sartre in particular seemed to prefer narcotics, while de Beauvoir comes across less a fruity booze sipper and more a hard liquor drinker. But I suppose those are just more of the obsessively reconstructed details in which the devil resides.

RATING 8 / 10