What does it mean to live an authentic, fully human life? What distinguishes us from other animals? Are we truly set apart in some way? How should we think of ourselves? What are we? What should we do?
If these questions have ever concerned you then you could do no worse than read Sarah Bakewell’s fascinating book, At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, in which she takes us on a wonderful journey through the lives, loves, and sometimes tortured existence of the existentialists, who not only struggled to answer these questions and find the meaning of life, but also had to contend with the political chaos that Europe was in during the 20th century.
Bakewell, S. (2016). At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails. Chatto & Windus.
In this book, we are introduced to many philosophers (not all of them existentialists), but when I go back through the notes I made to accompany my reading, I see that Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger and Albert Camus are the ones that stood out for me.
Last year I read Sartre’s philosophical novel ‘Nausea’ for the first time and it really would have helped to have read Sarah Bakewell’s book first. Bakewell describes Sartre as an ugly, loud-mouthed uncompromising extremist who despite this was a magnet for women, not least Simone de Beauvoir, with whom he had an ‘open’ relationship for more than 50 years. For Sartre, the big question was ‘What does it mean to be free?’ Seeking the answer to this question was his life’s work and indeed his life as he attempted to live by the philosophy he espoused (in Iris Murdoch’s terms he inhabited his philosophy). For him denying this freedom was to act in ‘bad faith’, although by this he did not equate freedom with ‘anything goes’, rather that ‘only with context, meaning, facticity, situation and a general direction in our lives can we be free’.
Bakewell describes Simone de Beauvoir as the most transformative existentialist. de Beauvoir dedicated her work to applied existentialism; she was interested in the power lines of desire, observation, jealousy and control that connect people, and how constraints and freedom work together, particularly in relation to the oppression of women. She investigated the female experience and wrote of the alienation of women, who see themselves as ‘other’, living most of their lives in ‘bad faith’. Bakewell points out that the problem of how to be a woman is an existentialist problem par excellence; we are profoundly gendered beings. She writes of de Beauvoir’s book ‘The Second Sex’ as the single most influential work ever to come out of the existential movement.
Sartre and de Beauvoir’s work was influenced by many others, including Heidegger, Camus and Merleau-Ponty, with whom they had love/hate relationships. All these philosophers followed each other’s work and seemed to openly insult each other on a regular basis. Had Twitter existed in their time, they would have had a field day, although I think Heidegger would have hated Twitter. Heidegger thought that saying the first un-thought out thing that came to mind, which is called ‘discussion’ today, was empty ‘chit-chat’ and chided his students saying ‘We do not Heideggerize here! Let’s move on to the matter in hand.’ Hannah Arendt, who was one of his students and for a time his lover, claimed that what she learned from Heidegger was how to think.
Heidegger’s life-long concern was the beautiful, intense, terrifying mystery of human existence, the reason things exist and ‘Being’ (das Sein); what does it mean to ‘be’, what does it mean to live an authentic life? For Heidegger living an authentic life is being fully aware that our life is surrounded by death. Heidegger wanted us to avoid wasting time on the endless superficial ‘chatter’ of everyday life, which robs us of the freedom to think for ourselves. He wanted us to resist falling under its sway and become answerable to the call of our own voice, our authentic self. He calls on us to wake up and be ourselves and recognise that we are surrounded by nothingness (death), and that human existence is temporary and has an inbuilt expiry date. Heidegger recognised that we are not hovering above the world, we are in it, and everything is connected. Bakewell writes (p.148) that Heidegger thought that we are ‘not made of spiritual nothingness; we are part of Being, but we also bring something unique with us.’
Despite Bakewell’s wonderfully easy narrative style, Heidegger’s ideas are difficult to grasp and require ‘letting-go’ of one’s own usual critical ways of thinking. He comes across as a complex, solitary, unpopular figure, despite the widely recognised importance of his legacy, particularly because he never did apologize for his temporary support of the Nazi party.
Camus and Merleau-Ponty, were also key characters during this time. Both ultimately fell-out with Sartre and de Beauvoir.
Source of image: http://www.port-magazine.com/literature/remembering-albert-camus/
The question Camus tried to answer was ‘If life is revealed to be as futile as the labour of Sisyphus, how should we respond?’ In other words, Is life worth living? Most of the time we don’t stop to think about this, but occasionally a dramatic turn of events forces us to ask why exactly do we go on living. For Camus there is no ultimate meaning to what we do. For him life is absurd. Sartre and de Beauvoir could not agree with this, even though Camus pointed out that if life is absurd, then we are impelled to live life more intensely.
Of all the philosophers Sarah Bakewell discusses, Merleau-Ponty comes out as the ‘good guy’. She dedicates a whole chapter to him, bearing the title ‘The Dancing Philosopher’, because he was the only one of the group of existentialists, who, in their regular visits to cafes and night clubs, would ask a girl to dance and take to the floor. (Bakewell’s chapters all bear wonderful titles). Merleau-Ponty was not an existentialist, but a phenomenologist (Camus was neither). Bakewell describes Merleau-Ponty as the most revolutionary thinker of them all and his book ‘The Phenomenology of Perception’ as a masterwork. Merleau-Ponty was not interested in anguish and authenticity, but in the mystery of existence and how experience comes through perception (all the senses working together holistically) in an embodied way. His focus was embodied cognition, studying consciousness as a holistic social and sensory phenomenon, rather than a sequence of abstract processes. He reminded us of the central position that the body, perception, childhood and sociality occupy in real life. Bakewell tells us that a phenomenologist must put into words what is ordinarily not put into words, what is ordinarily considered inexpressible and how experience comes to us as a whole rather than separate parts. She took this quote below from The Phenomenology of Perception to sum up Merleau Ponty’s vision of human life.
“I am a psychological and historical structure. Along with existence, I received a way of existing, or a style. All of my actions and thoughts are related to this structure, and even a philosopher’s thought is merely a way of making explicit his hold upon the world, which is all he is. And Yet, I am free, not in spite of or beneath these motivations, but rather by their means. For that meaningful life, that particular signification of nature and history that I am, does not restrict my access to the world; it is rather my means of communication with it.”
Bakewell’s book is a delight to read. She brings these philosophers, and many more, to life, sharing her knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses. She clearly shows us how they interacted with each other and how they influenced each other. She also discusses them in the context of their time, describing a war torn Europe, which influenced each of them differently and determined who they would meet, when and where, and how they would communicate, both during and after the war.
In chapter 3 (p.32) Bakewell writes:
“The existentialists lived in times of extreme ideology and extreme suffering, and they became engaged with events in the world whether they wanted to or not – and usually they did. The story of existentialism is therefore a political and a historical one: to some extent, it is the story of a whole European century.”
In her final chapter (p.245) Bakewell urges us to reread the existentialists and writes:
‘They remind us that human existence is difficult and that people often behave appallingly, yet they also show how great our possibilities are.’