Tuesday, November 15, 2016

At the Existentialist Café, by Sarah Bakewell

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others, by Sarah Bakewell (Other Press, 2016), is about the 20th century philosophies of phenomenology and existentialism. It integrates explanations of philosophy with biographical information on the principal figures in these movements: Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, and others. It examines the philosophies of the 19th century and earlier, with special attention paid to Kierkegaard and Hegel, which provided the foundations of existentialism, and quickly moves to the 20th century. It’s written for a lay reading audience. By that I mean an audience of intelligent readers who can deal with complex ideas on a relatively high level. I often found myself losing track of the philosophical discussions. This was especially true for phenomenology, not so much for existentialism. For the most part, I grasped the general gist of the matter: phenomenology Is a philosophy of the self, experience, and consciousness. Existentialism concerns the freedom of the individual to act and live in defiance of the world. However, different references often give divergent definitions of phenomenology.
I grew up in the era of existentialism. The counter culture and protest movements of the 1960s and 70s were existentialist movements, though few of the participants could explain why or were even aware of the fact (include me in that proviso). Although I never studied their ideas in much detail, I knew about Camus and Sartre and to a lesser extent about de Beauvoir, Heidegger and others. I read Camus's The Stranger and The Plague and Sartre’s Nausea. In a loose sort of way I regarded these figures as models of how to live and be in the contemporary world, as models of the artist. At some point I became interested in Heidegger, perhaps because of the titles of his works, especially Being and Time, and also because I felt he might be an influence on the novelist William Faulkner.
Heidegger is an especially problematic figure. For about a year under the Nazi regime he held an administrative position as rector of the University of Freiberg,  a leading German university.  He was a member of the Nazi party. In 1934 he resigned his post and returned to his hometown and sought to live a private life. His letters and private papers give evidence of his involvement in Nazism. He never renounced his membership in the Nazi party. He wasn’t judged fit to teach until four years after the end of the second world war. He didn't talk much. Goodwell describes his writing style as complex and impenetrable, like his personality.
Bakewell views Simone de Beauvoir as a central figure in existentialism. She regards her book The Second Sex not merely as a founding document of modern feminism but as a major work of existential philosophy. Although she was for most of her life involved in a deep professional and private relationship with Sartre (it was sexual for less than a decade during the 1930s), she was an independent thinker, not an acolyte. At the same time, she and Sartre read and commented on each other’s work--they were major influences on each other.  They worked together on a daily basis, often sitting next to one another as they wrote. Clearly de Beauvoir and Sartre were part of an important philosophical movement which she helped form.
Sartre and de Beauvoir were prolific—in addition to their works of philosophy, they wrote plays, novels, journalism, biographies, political commentary, literary criticism, memoirs. Sartre wrote so much, especially after the war, that he probably damaged his health and even the quality of what he wrote.  In the later, politically activist years of his life he decided not to revise first drafts: he regarded revision as bourgeois. This is an opinion I do not hold myself and which I will not share with my students.
For its discussions of the lives and personalities of the major figures in existentialism, At the Existentialist Cafe is a fascinating book. Existentialism seems to me today to be a profound and still pertinent explanation of our place in the world, of our freedom to choose the course of our lives.  Many scholars of philosophy, and perhaps many philosophers, view existentialism as a movement that ran its course back in the 20th century and that has been supplanted by new forms of philosophical thinking. It’s difficult for me to conceive of existentialism as a movement that is mainly a matter of historical interest, and that no longer offers a way to live. But such is time and the short spans of human life.

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