Reviewed by: Anthony Clemons (Alma Mater Europaea/Global Center for Advanced Studies)
Nietzsche wrote that a philosophy is always the biography of the philosopher. However, a philosophy taken outside of the context of the philosopher’s life can make their ideas seem, at best, un-relatable and, at worst, inaccessible.
In her latest work At the Existentialist Café, Sarah Bakewell revisits the texts that defined her adolescence and adopts this premise, writing, “Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so” (p. 326) This feeds into her interest of investigating the lives of the seminal philosophers who re-appropriated German phenomenology into a redefined brand of continental philosophy known as existentialism. In doing so, Bakewell assumes the role of cultural tour guide and frames an ever-vivid and occasionally nostalgic milieu of love affairs, mentorships, rebellions, lifelong partnerships, and the fallings-out of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Richard Wright, Edmund Husserl, Jean Genet and other larger-than-life thinkers who defined the thinking and culture of the post-World-War II generation.
In the book’s opening pages, Bakewell encapsulates the depth of her scholarship and biographical pluck by encapsulating the birth of existentialism into a singular point, “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” (p. 1). These burgeoning philosophers included a 27-year-old Sartre, his 25-year-old girlfriend Beauvoir as well as Raymond Aron, an academic colleague of Sartre’s who was visiting during winter break from his philosophical studies in Berlin.
Suffering from intellectual atrophy in their own careers, Sartre and Beauvoir were interested in the intellectual discoveries Aron had unearthed in Berlin. Aron was only happy to oblige by describing a new brand of philosophy purported by Martin Husserl and refined by Aron’s mentor, Edmund Heidegger. Using vivid prose, Bakewell richly describes the Husserlian word phenomenology,
[Aron] was now telling his friends about a philosophy he had discovered there with the sinuous name of phenomenology—a word so long yet elegantly balanced that, in French as in English, it makes a line of iambic trimester all by itself (p. 2).
Though well-educated in their own right, neither Sartre or Beauvoir found Heidegger’s treatise on phenomenology to be linguistically accessible. However, on this day, in this café, Bakewell describes the moment Sartre and Beauvoir jumped into the phenomenological abyss, arguably spurring the most influential cultural movement of the 20th-century. Speaking directly to Sartre, Aron said, “You see mon petit camarade…if you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!” (p. 3).
Flying in the face of the analytic calculus in which they were formally trained, Beauvoir wrote that, “Sartre turned pale on hearing this” (p. 3). Similarly, Sartre would recall in an interview some 40 years later that moment “knocked me out”, because there was now a treatise for, “doing philosophy that reconnected it with [the] normal, lived experience” (p. 3). In fact, Bakewell’s rendering of just how much Aron piqued Sartre and Beauvoir’s curiosity gives her opening a flavor of France at that time; feverish, yet relaxed.
Ultimately, this new-fangled notion of phenomenology was the ingredient that both young philosophers needed to refine their own theories and a starting point for Bakewell to chronicle how their ideas fuse and infuse the European cultural scene.
Yet, a discussion of phenomenology and existentialism would be incomplete without considering the role of World-War II. Bakewell does this by recounting how even the celebrated minds of philosophy are sometimes thrust into the fray of reality. She illustrates her case with an account of Sartre being held as a German prisoner of war and his anti-climatic escape by making an ophthalmology appointment and leaving unattended, only to never return. Bakewell also parallel’s Sartre’s experience with the measures Beauvoir was taking to survive the rationing of food and other items in Nazi-controlled Paris.
Upon Sartre’s return to France, Bakewell sets the stage to evidence just how much reality can affect even the staunchest of pure practitioners, writing, “Beauvoir was briefly jubilant at seeing Sartre, then frankly pissed off by the way he began passing judgement on everything she had been doing to survive” (p. 143). Sartre’s confrontation with Beauvoir regarding her philosophical compromises would ultimately cause both philosophers to make an introspective inquiry as to how existentialism should now be defined, leading to Sartre’s seminal work Being and Nothingness (1943) and Beauvoir’s feminist treatise The Second Sex (1949).
Combined, these examples are the formative means that Bakewell uses to frame the case that phenomenology and existentialism are more than just a couple of philosophical theories. Rather, they are rather formative notions of the nature of living, suffused with the real experiences and personal sufferings of those who developed the ideas and lived their lives according to their dictates.
Early-on, Bakewell acknowledges the influence existentialism welded on her adolescent years and acknowledges the cherished the role it serves in her life today. She writes, “when reading Sartre on freedom, Beauvoir on the subtle mechanisms of oppression, Kierkegaard on anxiety, Albert Camus on rebellion, Heidegger on technology and Merleau-Ponty on cognitive science, one sometimes feels one is reading the latest news” (pp. 28-29). This is why Sartre, Heidegger, and especially Beauvoir would likely approve of Bakewell’s approach to telling the story of existentialism. As a storyteller, she reconnects their lived experiences with their contribution to the development of existentialism as a philosophy. She also pervades her storytelling with the mark of her own interdisciplinary education and experiences.
Born in England and raised in Australia, Bakewell is a polymath and self-reformed academic. She read philosophy at the University of Essex and eventually took a postgraduate degree in Artificial Intelligence. Professionally, she has worked as a factory worker on a tea-bag assembly-line, bookshop attendant, library cataloguer, and is now an award-winning full-time author and professor of Creative Writing at Kellogg College, Oxford, UK. These experiences have influenced Bakewell’s biographical style, giving rise to her willingness to ground the high-brow, biographical tone of her characters to their own story, while also intertwining her own lived experiences.
At the Existentialist Café offers a nostalgic and introspective look at the birth and development of pure existentialism through the eyes of the most notable philosophers of the movement and the author, whose experience with the philosophy provides grounded clarity. The book is also a refreshing glance at the mid-twentieth century ideas that led to the post-modern and deconstructionist philosophies that we continue to refine. Ms. Bakewell’s method of storytelling exudes a personal sense that is neither overreaching nor overtly critical. It is seemingly the result of a conversation between her, a historian, a philosopher, and a cultural critic, all draining Apricot cocktails along a bustling Parisian street, while reminiscing on an earlier period forgotten by most, remembered by some, but loved by all.