Book review: At The Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell

THE tensions and contradictions between famous existentialists prove as fascinating as their pursuit of the essence of Being, writes Stuart Kelly

Sarah Bakewell
Sarah Bakewell

At The Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell | Chatto & Windus, £16.99

You can’t tell a Hegelian by her cardigan or a logical positivist by his haircut; but we all know what an existentialist is supposed to look like. It is just one of the joys of Sarah Bakewell’s history of the movement that your mental picture is probably wrong.

Forget about the black turtle-neck and the obligatory Gitane: the earliest existentialist uniform, from the period in the 1940s when America seemed liked the possibility of liberation and not a homogenising capitalist nightmare, was the plaid shirt. Not for nothing did Norman Mailer, who once stood as an existentialist mayoral candidate, without having really read much existentialist philosophy, describe “the American existentialist” as “the hipster” on an “uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self”. Mailer’s “rebel without a cause” version of the existentialist is equally wrong. As Bakewell repeatedly shows, they had causes in abundance, and were probably even more concerned with the other than the self.

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    Do we need another book about the existentialists, who, as the author herself admits, can seem a bit old hat? She makes a positive case for reassessing them, not least because her ideology is that “ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so”. This undersells her intellectual originality. There are many books about Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and Maurice Merleau-Ponty – Andy Martin’s The Boxer And The Goalkeeper: Sartre Versus Camus is a good recent example. There are fewer books on the German inspiration for the Parisian existentialists – Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers and most importantly Martin Heidegger – and those that are can be dazzling, but are not exactly for the non-specialist reader, such as Avital Ronell’s wonderful The Telephone Book.

    Bakewell brings the two together, finding parallels and echoes, affinities and significant differences, between the German and French versions. She also brings in the Anglophone response to existentialism, notably with the novelist Iris Murdoch, and cleverly uses the Czech reaction to check the claims that existentialism was irrelevant by describing its importance to Klíma, Havel and Patočka. Philip Roth’s contrast between the West, where “everything goes and nothing matters” and the Soviet Bloc where “nothing goes and everything matters” is judiciously quoted.

    Bakewell writes extremely well about de Beauvoir, and the extent to which The Second Sex – translated before Sartre’s Being And Nothingness or Heidegger’s Being And Time (translated, by the way, by John Macquarrie, a Scottish theologian) – created the mental climate through which existentialism was viewed abroad. It is not a wholly happy story, with the various infelicities of translation and poor choice of jacket design making the book seem more salacious and more conservative at the same time – indeed, the first translators cut out the “philosophy”.

    But the real tension in the book is in the differences between Heidegger and Sartre, who famously did not get on when they eventually met. Sartre, despite Camus’s jibe that he “set his armchair in the direction of history”, did try to create a philosophy of political engagement. His dictum that one must look through “the eyes of the least favoured” in making an ethical or political choice is close to that contemporary catchphrase, “check your privilege”. Despite some questionable choices – and more could have been done in this book about the existentialists’ fascination with Mao – Sartre emerges as someone who was trying at all times to be good.

    Heidegger is a more difficult proposition. When the poet Paul Celan visited him, Heidegger made sure the local bookshops had Celan’s work prominently displayed. Bakewell notes that it is the only anecdote she can find of him being “nice” to another person. Sartre is, in all senses, a character; Heidegger seemed to have no character at all. Much more serious is his complicity with the Nazi regime. His case is not as clear-cut as that of, say, the legal philosopher of totalitarianism, Carl Schmitt, or even Paul de Man’s anti-Semitic writing. Heidegger’s refusal to repudiate, his terrible silence, in some ways shows him at his most Sartre-like: he would not indulge in the bad faith of an expedient “apology”.

    Reading this spry and lively book, I was constantly reminded about how existentialism seems out of favour because we are all basically existentialists now: anxious, yearning for authenticity while playing our designated roles, alienated from ourselves at a fundamental level. When Bakewell, with a degree of canny élan, observes that Heidegger’s essay “The Question Concerning Technology” was published in the same year as Godzilla was first screened, one realises that the itches they were trying to scratch still fizz and irk beneath our skins.

    In the age of virtual selves and avatars, Occupy and the 99 per cent, the questions of what we are, what we might do, and how me might engage are more relevant and timeous than ever.