THREE YOUNG and brilliant philosophers — the good-hearted Jean-Paul Sartre, the elegant Simone de Beauvoir, and the debonair Raymond Aron — sat in a bar on Paris’s rue du Montparnasse sometime around 1932. As they sipped apricot cocktails, they discussed how philosophy could be about everyday things, like apricot cocktails. Galvanized by the tipsy banter, Sartre had an epiphany: “Finally there is philosophy.”

So recounts Sarah Bakewell in her new book, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, throwing her reader into a world of dazzlingly brilliant and revolutionary 20th-century philosophers, including the aforementioned threesome, as well as Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The “cast of characters” also includes cameo appearances by Hannah Arendt, Frantz Fanon, Iris Murdoch, and about 68 others.

Bakewell, author of three other books, most recently How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, untangles connections between the players’ ideas, politics, and personal relationships. The narrative is roughly chronological: from the aftermath of World War I, through World War II, to the philosophers’ deaths in the late 20th century. To use the Heideggerian metaphor that recurs all the way through, Bakewell shows where her subjects, like paths in a forest, agree and diverge, follow and lead, crisscross, cold-shoulder, flirt, rebel, and enjoy moments together in sunny clearings. (Although, in reality, sunny clearings tended to be all-too-brief vodka-fueled hazes of camaraderie.) Their stories unfold from intellectual hotspots — not only universities, but also forests, castles, cafés, and jazz dives — mostly in Germany and France, where people passed the time writing, dancing, conspiring, scattering provocative poetry, and, as in Bakewell’s description of Sartre, “loudly slaughtering the sacred cows of philosophy, literature and bourgeois behaviour.”

While other biographies have been written about these characters — notably Tête-à-Tête, Hazel Rowley’s 2006 book about de Beauvoir and Sartre — Bakewell’s book weaves together an ambitious number of stories and complicated concepts in an unusually vibrant, erudite, and compulsively readable manner. Sometimes her account is cheeky and playful, as when, for example, she compares Sigmund Freud’s idea of the human psyche to baklava. Other times, it’s more gripping than a Dan Brown best seller, especially when she recounts the lengths to which philosophers would go in order to rescue each other’s manuscripts from wartime pillaging. The Franciscan monk and philosopher Herman Van Breda actually reminds me of Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code: on the brink of war in 1938, this brave brother plotted with teams of Benedictine nuns, traversing Germany on midnight trains and shuttling between embassies and monasteries with three bulging suitcases of suspicious papers — containing 40,000 pages of Husserl’s scrawl — all under the shadows of territorial negotiations between Hitler, Mussolini, Daladier, and Chamberlain.

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“If done correctly, all existentialism is applied existentialism,” writes Bakewell. It’s not only relevant to consider how the existentialists attempted to integrate life and philosophy — not to do so would be an oversight. Furthermore, “Ideas are interesting,” says the author, “but people are vastly more so.” In fact, Bakewell herself is a character in the narrative, weaving her experience throughout: for example, she includes an account of how she, at 16, bought a copy of Sartre’s Nausea because she was drawn to the Salvador Dalí cover image and a blurb that called the book “a novel of the alienation of personality and the mystery of being.” Bakewell recalls, “I wasn’t sure what alienation meant, although I was a perfect example of it at the time. But I had no doubt that it would be my kind of book.”

Theories and questions and anxiety about human agency — choosing, acting, taking responsibility, finding meaning — had been fermenting since the 1800s in the works of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, whom Bakewell describes as “the heralds of modern existentialism.” However, she pinpoints the apricot cocktail moment as a kind of Big Bang. The idea that turned Sartre pale with excitement was Aron’s description of phenomenology, a philosophy developed by Husserl and his protégés (including Jaspers and Heidegger) in the early 20th century. Bakewell shows how the phenomenologists combined psychology and philosophy to look at ordinary things — like coffee cups — in completely new ways. Instead of questioning whether the cup of coffee was real, as philosophers before them had done, the phenomenologists sought to describe the coffee-drinking experience as carefully as possible. Bakewell describes phenomenology as a method that goes “straight for life as they experienced it, moment to moment,” lets things reveal themselves, and looks at them very closely. Phenomenology was radical because, Bakewell says, it shifted the focus of philosophy from what the mind is to what it is about; that is, what are our intentions and experiences?

Upon leaving the bar on rue du Montparnasse, Sartre read as much phenomenology as he could get his hands on. Bakewell describes how he borrowed the phenomenologists’ ideas about being, nausea, nothingness, moodiness, and looking at trees (as well as beverages). He remixed them in exceptionally innovative ways to become one of the most famous existentialists — a label that he reluctantly accepted. Never an official school of thought, the philosophers associated with existentialism developed different theories, and constantly changed their minds. But if there is no single definition of existentialism, there are overlapping precepts, which Bakewell summarizes in convenient dot-point format:

— […] I am free
— and therefore I’m responsible for everything I do, a dizzying fact which causes
— an anxiety inseparable from human existence itself.
— On the other hand, I am only free within situations, which can include factors in my own biology and psychology as well as physical, historical and social variables of the world into which I have been thrown.
— Despite the limitations, I always want more: I am passionately involved in personal projects of all kinds […]
— By describing experience well, he or she hopes to understand this existence and awaken us to ways of living more authentic lives.

Existential thinkers became popular during World War II because they spoke frankly about freedom, responsibility, and the absurdity of wartime existence as characterized by mysterious disappearances, torture, and death. Bakewell writes about how they used their pens to fight passionately and prolifically against oppression, connecting with large audiences through novels and plays, like Sartre’s The Flies, an adaptation of the Greek myth of Electra and Orestes. In his version, after avenging his father’s murder by killing those responsible — his mother and her new husband — Orestes turns down help from Zeus to eradicate a plague of flies, in favor of accepting full responsibility for his actions and the consequences of his rebellion against tyranny. Bakewell explains that the play’s relevance to Parisians in 1943 was clear: “Everyone knew that joining the Resistance could bring risks to one’s friends and family, which meant that any act of rebellion brought a real moral burden.” Sartre’s unfinished series of novels The Roads to Freedom, Camus’s novel The Plague, de Beauvoir’s novel The Blood of Others, and her play Useless Mouths — all deal with similar pro-Resistance themes.

After World War II, the philosophers’ trajectories diverged. “The war had changed everything, for everyone,” Bakewell notes, and although Sartre and de Beauvoir were lovers and lifelong companions, their friendships with Camus, Merleau-Ponty, Aron, and others collapsed under the weight of their conflicting political convictions. De Beauvoir turned to writing her revolutionary and controversial book The Second Sex (which Bakewell remarks “can be considered the single most influential work ever to come out of the existentialist movement”), and Sartre took to fighting for political underdogs, eventually turning down the Nobel Prize in Literature and accusing the committee of a biased selection process. Religious existentialists — Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, Gabriel Marcel, and Simone Weil — wrote fervently about ethical obligations to others. Heidegger had no interest in politics or ethics — in the end, he retreated to a secluded hut in the Black Forest with the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin and Georg Trakl.

Heidegger’s story makes for the most unsettling part of Bakewell’s book. Bakewell describes how, in her 20s, she was enchanted by Heidegger and his “raw amazement that there is something rather than nothing.” For Heidegger, she writes,

We are a ‘clearing’, a Lichtung, a sort of open, bright forest glade into which beings can shyly step forward like a deer from the trees. Or perhaps one should visualise beings entering the clearing to dance, like a bowerbird in a prepared patch in the undergrowth.

Living authentically, Heidegger had insisted, involves constant thinking and questioning. So it came as a surprise to his friends that he accepted the Nazi regime; indeed, Bakewell argues that Nazi themes throughout his writing make it impossible just to pick out the “safe” bits. And yet: Though Bakewell paints Heidegger as a thoroughly shady character, morally and ethically compromised, she also finally suggests that he was the “most brilliant” of them all. In the end, the reader is left with more questions than answers: Why do people still study Heidegger’s work? Should we? Does asking this kind of question, as if to apply Heidegger’s theory, prove that he matters in the big scheme? And is this what Bakewell wants us to believe?

Bakewell doesn’t specifically instruct the reader about how to use existential philosophy. It wouldn’t be very existential to do so — it’s up to us to work that out for ourselves. However, toward the end of the book, she explains how others have applied their ideas. The American author Richard Wright drew from Sartre and Camus for his novel The Outsider. Ralph Ellison, another American, won the National Book Award for Invisible Man, the story of “an alienated black man making a journey from invisibility to authenticity.” Existential ideas worked their way into films such as Rebel Without a Cause, Godzilla, and Funny Face, in which Audrey Hepburn does what Bakewell calls “a wild existentialist dance” in a Parisian bar while searching for a philosopher. Viktor Frankl and R. D. Laing applied existential thinking to psychotherapy, linking psychological well-being to the search for meaning. Others inspired by existential theory entered politics: Norman Mailer pulled out of the running for existential mayor of New York City after drinking too much, arguing with his wife, and then stabbing her at the launch party. Václav Havel, on the other hand, became the first post-Communist president of Czechoslovakia in 1989; inspired by the thinking of Heidegger and Husserl, Havel took up the spirit of skepticism and rebellion against Communist oppression. His vision, Bakewell writes, was for an “existential revolution,” in which “people’s relationship to the ‘human order’ is overhauled and they can return to the authentic experience of things.”

Bakewell writes that “existentialist ideas and attitudes have embedded themselves so deeply into modern culture that we hardly think of them as existentialist at all” — still, she argues, it’s worth spending time with our existentialist forebears. It’s not just that they’re colorful characters: Bakewell suggests that “perhaps we need the existentialists more than we thought,” and:

[W]hen reading Sartre on freedom, Beauvoir on the subtle mechanisms of oppression, Kierkegaard on anxiety, Albert Camus on rebellion, Heidegger on technology, or Merleau-Ponty on cognitive science, one sometimes feels one is reading the latest news. Their philosophies remain of interest, not because they are right or wrong, but because they concern life, and because they take on the two biggest human questions: what are we? and what should we do?

These philosophers were asking the same questions we are asking today about politics, and science. They addressed such issues as the right to offend, the right to privacy, freedom of speech, how technology changes our identities, and to what extent we are responsible for who we are and the world we are creating. “Science books and magazines bombard us with the news that we are out of control,” Bakewell writes,

that we amount to a mass of irrational but statistically predictable responses, veiled by the mere illusion of a conscious, governing mind. […] We claim to find it disturbing, but we might actually be deriving a kind of reassurance from it – for such ideas let us off the hook. They save us from the existential anxiety that comes with considering ourselves free agents who are responsible for what we do. Sartre would call that bad faith.

The philosophers’ other bequest to us? To bring attention to everyday life. On the very first page, Bakewell suggests that existentialism can be traced back to anyone who was ever “disgruntled, rebellious, or alienated.” All too often, busy as we are (disgruntled, rebellious, and alienated), we forget to ask ourselves what it all means. The existential philosophers reminded us to think and question, to dance and drink cocktails, to revel in what Bakewell describes, in response to de Beauvoir’s autobiography, as “the exquisite, phosphorescent bloom of life, which reveals itself to us for as long as we are lucky enough to be able to experience it.”

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Skye C. Cleary PhD is a philosopher and author of Existentialism and Romantic Love.