Review: Telling It Like It Is – Sartre, Beauvoir and the Highs and Lows of Existentialism

Sarah Bakewell’At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being & Apricot Cocktails is a riveting intellectual biography that brings to life the people who transformed existentialism from a fancy idea with an even fancier lineage, to a full-fledged ‘movement’.

Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir arriving in Israel and being welcomed by Avraham Shlonsky and Leah Goldberg in March 1967. Credit: Wikimedia

Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir being welcomed to Israel by poets Avraham Shlonsky and Leah Goldberg in March 1967. Credit: Wikimedia

Earlier this year, while leafing through assorted bookshelves at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, I had the good fortune of finding a copy of Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails with Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and others (London: Chatto & Windus, 2016). What made this discovery particularly fortuitous was that it connected very well with a question I had been pondering in the preceding weeks and months – namely, how can one lucidly communicate ideas from the discipline of the social sciences to wider audiences, especially those not given to the arcane jargon and terminology that inundates and, arguably, imprisons much of our contemporary academic thinking and writing?

Several years ago, the anthropologist E. Valentine Daniel, while addressing a gathering at Jawaharlal Nehru University, candidly stated that social scientists generically write badly (with some exceptions). He went on to suggest that as a partial remedy to all the bad writing they do during the day, they must soak themselves in some good fiction at night, a gesture akin to washing away one’s sins. That counsel has stayed with me ever since, and I remain acutely aware that in academic writing there is still a lot of verbal grime to rub off and flab to shed.

Bakewell’s book is a fine exception to this norm. It does a great job of telling the story without sacrificing the facts. And it does so with erudition and some lovely, clean prose. The book makes a telling point – ideas can be fun and charting their trajectories with the people involved can be even more enjoyable. After all, ideas do not appear in a vacuum. They are a product of sustained engagement with intellectual currents at a specific place and moment in history. The work is a deep, engaging and sprightly intellectual history that surmounts every conceivable obstacle in terms of breaking down complex ideas into digestible morsels. My sense is that it could serve as an excellent illustration for anybody keen on transcending barriers – real or imagined – between distinct genres of writing. But first, let’s take a look at the contents of the book.

Imaginary conversations

Cover of Sarah Bakewell's At the Existential Cafe, published by Chatto & Winus. Credit: Chatto & Winlus/ Penguin Books

Sarah Bakewell
At the Existential Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails
Chatto & Windus, 2016

Bakewell (a philosopher by training), traces the origins of existentialism to a conversation at a watering hole in 1932-33 Paris. She reconstructs a conversation between Jean Paul Sartre, Raymond Aron and Simone de Beauvoir. In the conversation, Aron draws attention to his recent exposure in Berlin to a philosophical development referred to as phenomenology which focuses on ‘…the things themselves’. Bakewell suggests that what mattered to the phenomenologists was not an endless contemplation of what we knew and how we knew it but to access the world itself with an immediacy and urgency that was not hitherto encountered. Sartre and Beauvoir’s curiosity is aroused. Soon after, Sartre travels to Berlin to get a first-hand exposure to these ideas, and returns to Paris in 1934, where the early seeds of French existentialism are sown.

Among other things, Bakewell’s account reveals the German roots of French existentialism. She offers us a fine account of how Sartre gives phenomenology a distinct spin through several of his works, including the well-known Nausea and Being and Nothingness. Sartre claimed that ‘existence is prior to essence,’ the foundational premise of existentialism. Bakewell captures the sentiment eloquently. Sartre realised that “I am my own freedom: no more, no less.”

Beauvoir contributes substantively in her own right through her unique voice – memoirs, autobiographies and chronicles that lend human experiential reality a rich texture while inaugurating a unique feminism. Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is ‘applied existentialism’ writ large in Bakewell’s rendition. There is a palpable dialogue between ideas and lived lives. Sartre and Beauvoir scoffed at bourgeois morality (and institutions like marriage) and were involved in an ‘open relationship’, which required them to be honest to each other about the many sexual partners they individually took on. Bakewell also dissects their differing attitudes towards sexuality – Sartre repelled by the ‘viscous’ world of bodily fluids and Beauvoir embracing sexuality with the spirit and appetite for life of Zorba the Greek.

Disagreement all round

Quite early in the book, Bakewell leads us to absorbing life sketches of two philosophers particularly associated with the phenomenological tradition – Edmund Husserl and his student and, later, sharp detractor Martin Heidegger. The real strength of this book lies in its ability to straddle the personal and scholarly inclinations of these figures while amply demonstrating the deep imbrication of ideas and lives. For anybody interested in knowing what Husserl and Heidegger thought about the nature of ‘being’ as captured in their classic works, Bakewell provides an excellent point of departure. Heidegger remains an oddball to decipher – especially given his later support for the Nazis and subsequent reluctance to disassociate himself with this fascist streak in German history. Being and Time comes in for close attention, as do the early quibbles and later quarrels between Husserl and Heidegger over the very nature of ‘being’ and the content of phenomenology. In Bakewell’s reading, Heidegger argued that phenomenology was too vague a term to define and Husserl excluded the very nature of ‘being’ in his account of what he regarded as phenomenology.

Albert Camus. Credit: Wikipedia

Albert Camus. Credit: Wikipedia

Husserl and Heidegger are not the only ones to disagree. With the exception of Sartre and Beauvoir, everybody appears to disagree with everybody else. Sartre and Albert Camus remain unconvinced of each other’s positions. Camus is committed to the idea of estrangement and ‘absurdity’ while Sartre and Beauvoir remain sceptical of ‘absurdity’ as the be-all and end-all of human existence. Camus is opposed to capital punishment, arguing that the state must never have the right to take the life of a citizen, while Sartre under certain conditions makes the case for capital punishment as a justified response by the state to terror. Sartre labours the importance of the politically engaged writer while Camus is much more sceptical about what he regards as forms of posturing in the life of a writer.

A number of other candidates make their entry on this stage; the influence of Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, and Friedrich Nietzsche, the well-known German philosopher, also come in for close scrutiny. Bakewell argues that they were the genuine intellectual antecedents of modern-day existentialism. Besides them, other prominent figures are a part of the narrative as well – Karl Jaspers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Emmanuel Levinas.

Human frailties and the power of ideas

A figure whom Sartre is particularly invested in is Jean Genet. Genet was many things – he wrote novels, plays, poems and essays and was politically active. He is credited with several works. Some of his better-known works are The Thief’s Journal, Prisoner of Love and his recently re-published political essays in the volume The Declared Enemy. What attracted Sartre, though, was Genet’s capacity for ‘inversion’. Bakewell observes that ‘Genet’s books turn shit into flowers, prison cells into sacred temples, and the most murderous prisoners into the objects of greatest tenderness. This is why Sartre called him a saint: where a saint transfigures suffering into sanctity, Genet transforms oppression into freedom.’ Sartre devotes a full-length book to him that bore the title Saint-Genet.

What makes this account particularly lively is its simultaneous account of human frailties. It is not uncommon to see these figures disagree over fundamentals and sometimes parting ways on unpleasant terms, given their attachment to the ideas and inability to separate their political persuasions from their friendships.

Another great strength of the book lies in Bakewell’s ability to adroitly recapture the zeitgeist. From the gathering of war clouds over Europe, through the two world wars that followed, to Sartre’s rejection of the Nobel prize in Literature in 1964, the student uprisings of 1968 and Beauvoir’s rejection of the Légion d’honneur in 1982 – everything comes under the close scrutiny of Bakewell’s inimitable prose. She argues that the history of existentialism is the history of Europe across a century and the ideas associated with the ‘movement’ are far from extinguished. Rather, she says that we often do not realise the extent to which they are lodged in our contemporary consciousness, where they have assumed a natural life. There are several illustrations that bring to bear these connections in Bakewell’s account.

The book leaves you with much to mull over, perhaps most significantly a series of hints on how to go about both reconstructing and auditing the ecology of big ideas in history from other places and times as well.

It also serves as a welcome reminder of the original questions that bothered the existentialists regarding the true nature of human agency, the interplay of freedom and responsibility and the ephemerality of our constructs. Obviously none of these concerns have exhausted their original potential in either intellectual or practical terms so many years later.

Siddharth Mallavarapu currently teaches International Relations at South Asian University, New Delhi, while on deputation from Jawaharlal Nehru University.