on At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell (Other Press)
In October 1973, OPEC declared an oil embargo on the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Japan, cut production by 25%, and raised the price per barrel by 70%. The French government, encouraging energy conservation and investment in nuclear technology, ran ads with the following tagline: En France, on n’a pas de pétrole, mais on a des idées -- “We may not have oil in France, but we have ideas.”
By 1973, the French had been exporting ideas called “existentialism” for 40 years at very low profit margins earned mainly through book publishing, movie distribution, Gauloises cigarettes, and black turtleneck sweaters manufactured in the Lorraine. Today only one woolen mill remains in Bar-le-Duc – but Harvard still offers its undergraduates “Philosophy 34: Existentialism in Literature and Film” with texts from Pascal and Nietzsche to Sartre and Beckett, and films by Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and Carol Reed.
France has achieved the domestic goal of establishing nuclear fission as the primary source of its energy. As Sarah Bakewell so capably relates in her latest book, French mid-twentieth century ideas have also flourished and continue to tint the attitudes of an entire world. Although (or because) Bakewell was only 17 when Jean-Paul Sartre died in 1980, she was taken by the “gloomy outsider protagonist” of his novel Nausea -- just as I had been captivated at the same age in 1967. Her companionable and lively At the Existentialist Café retains some of her youthful enthusiasm for Sartrean existentialism and the iconoclastic vitality of Simone de Beauvoir’s feminism – even while portraying the less commendable aspects of their lives and thought.
Ineffective politicians, an unpredictable economy managed by the rich for the rich, immoderate unemployment, xenophobia, uncontrolled immigration, militarization and turbulent politics across the globe … this sounds like today’s news, but it describes France in the 1930’s. Sartre published Le Mur in the Nouvelle Revue Française in July 1937; one year later came La Nausée (translated into English in 1949). By the time the German army marched down the Champs Élysées in June 1940, Sartre was a star. Despite this bleak environment, he placed his emphasis on the freedom of the individual and the pursuit of authenticity.
My grandfather, a Turkish Jew who emigrated to France, ran a modest business in Paris until the spring of 1941. I remember him telling me about the very late daybreak on those winter mornings – because the Nazis synchronized French time with German time, turning the clocks forward by an hour. Sartre’s insistence on freedom seems even more desperate when even one’s own sense of time has been invalidated. Yet one month after the Germans left Paris in August 1944, Sartre wrote:
“Never have we been freer than under the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, starting with that of speaking; we were insulted daily and had to remain silent; we were deported en masse, as workers, as Jews, as political prisoners; everywhere – on walls, in newspapers, on screens – we were confronted by this vile image that our oppressors wanted to give us of ourselves: because of all that, we were free.”
As Bakewell indicates through her candid portrait of Sartre, since his youth nothing triggered his resentment (and outpouring of words) like the threats of a taunting, undefeatable antagonist. This leads to the central, implied, and enduring question at the core of At the Existentialist Café -- how does the life of ideas function and thrive in the face of overpowering, undeterred forces? In particular, of course, she considers the lives of the philosophers themselves – their orientations, competitiveness, actions, politics, preferences and habits.
Bakewell manages to pack the entire span of phenomenological thinking into her narrative, starting with Husserl and Kierkegaard, then on to Heidegger, and finally to the French. The long and intimate relationship between Sartre and Beauvoir anchors the story. Their collaborations and breaks with both Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Albert Camus get special emphases. But the cast includes Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin, Ernst Cassirer, Franz Fanon, Jean Genet, Karl Jaspers, Arthur Koestler, Michel Leiris, Emmanuel Levinas, Herbert Marcuse, Iris Murdoch, Colin Wilson, Richard Wright, and many others.
“There is a certain refreshment of perspective to be had from revisiting the existentialists with their boldness and energy,” she writes. “They did not sit around playing with their signifiers.” They also changed their minds and positions about various aspects of their worldview. Existentialism wasn’t an antidote for anxiety, it was its script. Phenomenology cared only about the appearance of real things – but ideas have no thing-ness. A person is her own subject and all others are objects, things perceived.
But that means a person is an object for all other subjects. How can an individual be integrated, divided as he is between the subjective and the objective? Sartre answered: I free myself from the other’s tyrannical gaze by acknowledging her freedom. I recall Bakewell noting that Sartre used to give his boyhood enemies little gifts to win them over. Later, when he became an avid communist advocate, both he and Beauvoir sanctioned violence to achieve goals and agreed that one could not associate with those who did not share their views. So long, Camus and Merleau-Ponty.
Existentialism prescribes a rigorous feel for the rapport between an individual’s consciousness and the existence of the world. As Bakewell puts it, “Sartrean existentialism was precisely a philosophy of mattering: he called on his readers to take decisions as though the whole future of humanity depended upon what they did … They remind us that human existence is difficult and that people often behave appallingly, yet they also show how great our possibilities are. They constantly repeat the questions about freedom and being that we constantly try to forget.” At the Existentialist Café deftly reanimates the tensions that resulted in ideas, desires and confusions that still define the sense of ourselves.
[Published March 1, 2016. 448 pages, $25.00 hardcover]