Life and Death at the Existentialist Café

By Richard GolsanJune 17, 2016

Life and Death at the Existentialist Café

At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell

GIVEN THE SOMEWHAT whimsical title of Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, and the fact that the book opens with Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and their friend Raymond Aron sipping apricot cocktails in a Paris café, one might assume that Bakewell’s new book is intended as an informal primer, an “existentialism light” version of the mid-20th century’s predominant philosophical movement.

In making this assumption, one would be at least partially right. At the Existential Café does indeed offer an accessible and highly readable account of the philosophical achievements of Europe’s major existentialist thinkers: Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, and Karl Jaspers in Germany; and Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty in France. Where appropriate, it also discusses the ideas of those in the “existentialist orbit,” including Heidegger’s students Herbert Marcuse and Hannah Arendt, and in Paris, the aforementioned Raymond Aron, the Christian existentialist Gabriel Marcel, and of course, Albert Camus. The latter shared intellectual affinities with Sartre and de Beauvoir, but always denied he was an existentialist, preferring to describe his philosophy as the “philosophy of the absurd.”

The all-star line-up does not end there. Along the way, the reader is also introduced to artists, writers, friends, and lovers of the existentialists, especially in postwar Paris. These include the novelist and jazz musician Boris Vian, who died tragically young at age 39 of a heart attack; Claude Lanzmann, the maker of Shoah, de Beauvoir’s lover, and the current editor of Les Temps modernes; the American expat Richard Wright, deeply influenced in his later work by existentialism; and the Hungarian writer, journalist, and activist Arthur Koestler, a friend of Sartre and Camus who eventually fell out with both after a fight at the end of a night of drunken revelry and political disagreement. Finally, Bakewell fills out her team with the Anglo-American friends, fellow travelers, and popularizers of the existentialists and their thought. These include Iris Murdoch and the “angry young man” Colin Wilson in the UK, and, in this country, William Barrett and Walter Kaufmann.

Beyond the leading figures of the age, Bakewell also moves further afield, discussing the impact of Sartre’s ideas on, for example, the Czech political leaders during the Prague Spring of 1968. She also traces the impact of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex on British and American women of different walks of life. Exhaustively, perhaps even exhaustedly, she also examines existentialism’s impact on popular literary and cinematic works of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. These include The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. All are notable for their portraits of alienation and conformity, Sartre’s category of en soi. (Bakewell could of course mention many other works as well, given the popularity and prevalence of existentialist themes, not only in British and American popular culture, but in that of other countries as well.)

As this suggests, At the Existentialist Café is in fact much more than an “existentialism light” primer. It is also a sensitive analysis of individuals and of the interplay of personalities against the backdrop of intense and fraught intellectual times. The era covered by Bakewell was marked by sharp and often murderous ideological divides and conflicts as well as shattered intellectual dreams. In France especially, the quick and disruptive transition from the end of Vichy and Nazi occupation to the Cold War, the rise of the superpowers, and a keen awareness of an impending Armageddon stoked political passions like never before. Staunch political engagements were the order of the day, often only to change radically under the weight of new political developments, what de Beauvoir called the “force of circumstances.”

As a result, alliances as well as friendships were made and unmade according to the rhythm of history. Merleau-Ponty, for example, started as a hardline supporter of Stalinism, challenging Arthur Koestler when the latter published his great anti-Stalinist novel Darkness at Noon, only to move away from uncritical support of Communism following the invasion of South Korea by the North. This change in perspective was the decisive ingredient in his rupture with his longtime friend Jean-Paul Sartre. But as Bakewell rightly points out, other factors contributed to the break as well. Merleau-Ponty’s acceptance and pursuit of an academic career, culminating in an appointment to the Collège de France, rankled Sartre, who viewed careerism as surrender to bourgeois conformity. For his part, Merleau-Ponty resented his co-editor Sartre’s meddling and unwillingness to share the workload at Les Temps modernes the journal the two men founded with de Beauvoir and others after the Liberation. Although both men made efforts at reconciliation, the bond between them was never the same.

Sartre’s most famous break with an erstwhile, close friend, was of course, with Albert Camus. The two men had disagreed early on after the Liberation over the issue of the “Purge,” the hastily convened courts tasked with judging individuals charged with collaboration. In particular, they diverged on the imposition of the death penalty for some collaborators. After early waffling on the issue, Camus categorically opposed the death penalty, an opposition he articulated eloquently in “Reflections on the Guillotine.” He signed a petition to commute the death sentence given to the fascist writer Robert Brasillach, which Sartre and de Beauvoir refused to do, and which Charles de Gaulle famously rejected. But it was the publication of Camus’s condemnation of revolutionary violence in the 1952 essay “The Rebel” that brought matters to a head. Not wishing to take Camus on directly, Sartre commissioned his young staffer Francis Jeanson to review “The Rebel” in Les Temps modernes. Jeanson obliged with a violent condemnation of the work, and Camus, rightly detecting Sartre’s hand, published a harsh rebuttal in which he attacked Sartre himself, insisting on referring to his former friend as “Monsieur le Directeur.” As Bakewell observes, the confrontation between the two men over “The Rebel” has been analyzed and overanalyzed by critics. But as Ronald Aronson points out in his Camus and Sartre, it scarred both men, and encouraged Camus in his feelings of alienation, especially from the Paris intellectual milieu. It also serves as a touchstone in continuing reassessments of the two men’s ideas and intellectual contributions, since Camus and Sartre are, so it seems, yoked to each other for posterity.

For her part, Bakewell readily concedes a deep feeling of sympathy for Sartre in his confrontation with Camus, and in other ways and other circumstances as well. As for the confrontation with Camus, Bakewell writes that it is “often mythologized as a drama in which Sartre, a ‘dreaming boy’ chasing an impossible fantasy, meets his comeuppance in the form of a clear-sighted moral hero who also happens to be cooler and wiser and better-looking: Camus.” Rejecting this scenario, she explains Sartre’s rough (and arguably underhanded) treatment of his former friend in terms of his recent, conversionary allegiance to Communism. “Pressurised about politics for years, taunted as a decadent bourgeois, Sartre […] considered it his duty to renounce personal feeling for Camus. Individual sentiment was a self-indulgence, and must be transcended.”

The postwar French and Parisian intellectual and cultural scene is, of course, only one part of the history of existentialism. Bakewell gives roughly equal time to Germany, and to the towering figures of Edmund Husserl, whose phenomenology so marked French existentialists, his brilliant student Heidegger, and Karl Jaspers. Bakewell does an excellent job of summing up, colorfully and clearly, the fundamental contributions of each thinker: Husserl’s phenomenological focus on objects in the world and the “bracketing out” of all subjective associations and “add-ons” (a process Husserl summed up using the Greek term epoché); Heidegger’s philosophy of Being (Dasein) and his famous postwar “turn” (die Kehre) away from prewar themes like “resoluteness” and “being-toward-death” to a focus on what Bakewell describes as a “need to be attentive and receptive, to wait and to open up.” This “turning” was not an abrupt process, but rather a gradual change, “like that of a man in a field who gradually becomes aware of the movement of the breeze in the wheat behind him, and turns to listen.” Encouraged by his background in Kierkegaardian existentialism and psychology (as well as his lifelong awareness of a potentially fatal heart condition), Karl Jaspers, Bakewell writes, moved in a different direction. He focused on “border” or “limit” situations, when one is constrained to make crucial choices in exceptional circumstances, perhaps life-or-death choices, but certainly quintessential existential moments.

The backdrop to most of this German philosophizing about existenz was of course the rise of Hitler and Nazism. This left its mark, if not its taint on the person and thought of Heidegger. Rector for a time of Freiberg University under the Nazis and a party member, Heidegger, to the disappointment and indeed horror of many, clearly embraced fascistic perspectives in much of his work. After the war, he refused to renounce his earlier position. Heidegger’s Nazism has of course been the subject of a great deal of study, speculation, and controversy for three decades or more, and Bakewell does a good job, less of explaining the links between Heidegger’s thought and Nazi ideology, than of accounting on a more personal level for why he took the positions he took. In Bakewell’s telling, Heidegger was a not a sympathetic or empathetic man, nor for that matter was he open-minded. Stated simply, he could not think outside the box of his own philosophy. For example, in Bakewell’s account of Heidegger’s trip to Greece after the war (a trip he deferred several times), despite his love of ancient Greek culture and its centrality in his own philosophy, Heidegger could only appreciate what he saw in the ways it conformed to his own preestablished vision of it. Heidegger was anything but cosmopolitan.

The story of Heidegger’s trip to Greece in At the Existential Café is just one of many telling anecdotes Bakewell recounts that capture a fundamental, or perhaps touching, aspect of the personality or limitations of one of her protagonists. Sartre’s graphomania, his occasional inability to limit the gusher of his own thoughts and creativity is humorously revealed when he was commissioned by John Huston to write the screenplay for a film about Freud. When Sartre turned in a scenario for a seven-hour film, Huston invited him to his home in Ireland where the two men would edit and cut the scenario. Despite Huston’s prompting to shorten the scenario, Sartre’s revised version actually added another hour to the film. Huston fired Sartre, finding another scénariste to write the screenplay for the film that eventually starred Montgomery Clift as Freud.

As readable and stimulating as it is, At the Existential Café does have its occasional flaws. These are due primarily to the vast sweep of Bakewell’s narrative. The need to summarize quickly and succinctly does lead on occasion to oversimplifications. For example, in her remarks on Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, Bakewell presents Arendt’s Eichmann, as the “ultimate Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” a “mindless bureaucrat so in the thrall to the Heideggerian ‘they’ that he had lost all human individuality and responsibility, a phenomenon which [Arendt] characterised as the banality of evil.” To use Husserlian language, Bakewell “brackets out” a great deal in this assessment, including what Arendt in fact meant by “banal,” the realities of life in the Third Reich and the Nazi hierarchy, and Eichmann’s inability to “think.”

Occasional shortcomings such as this are negligible given the extraordinarily rich tapestry of thinkers, ideas, historical events, and the play of personalities Bakewell brings (back) to life in At the Existentialist Café. It is perhaps appropriate, then, that Bakewell leaves the reader with a discussion of “departures,” of how these individuals ended their days, and what their legacies are for us today. Bakewell movingly depicts Sartre’s decline and death as described by de Beauvoir, and de Beauvoir’s death several years later, in part due to cirrhosis of the liver (like Sartre, she drank heavily, but did not indulge in Corydrane, which contributed to Sartre’s demise). The earlier deaths of Camus, in a gruesome auto accident, and Merleau-Ponty by heart attack are also vividly described. All these descriptions reflect Bakewell’s deep sympathy for most of her protagonists (as she describes him, it would be hard to like Heidegger on any level), and her summations of their contributions, individually and as a group, are most generous. They remind us, Bakewell writes, “that human existence is difficult and that people often behave appallingly, yet they also show how great our possibilities are.” The existentialists “repeat the questions about freedom and being that we constantly try to forget.” Although she does not quote Camus, it is perhaps the concluding wisdom of Camus’s The Plague that best sums up the lessons of the existentialists in At the Existential Café. That lesson is that “there is more in [humans] to admire than despise.”


Richard Golsan writes about 20th- and 21st-century France.

LARB Contributor

Richard J. Golsan is University Distinguished Professor and Distinguished Professor of French at Texas A&M University. His research interests include the history and memory of World War II in France and Europe and the political involvements of French and European writers and intellectuals with anti-democratic and extremist politics in the 20th and 21st centuries. His most recent book is French Writers and the Politics of Complicity (Johns Hopkins, 2006). Golsan served as a Visiting Professor at the University of Paris III-Sorbonne Nouvelle in 2001. He has been recognized by the Italian government in being named to the Ordina Della Stella Della Solidarieta Italiana and by the French government by being awarded the Palmes Academiques. He has served as Editor of the South Central Review (SCMLA) since 1994, and is also Director of the Melbern G. Glasscock Center for Humanities Research at Texas A&M and the Centre Pluridisciplinaire, funded by the French government.


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