Lucy and Todd

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At the Existentialist Café — Sarah Bakewell

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on March 14, 2016 at 10:46 am

Last spring, in Barcelona, the Catalan novelist Kiko Amat joked with me that in the Seventies, if you were a guy looking to score, all you had to do was have a book by Sartre sticking out of your pocket. These days it’s probably Dan Brown.

Now as everyone – ahem! – knows, you’re not allowed to relish thinking about Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre without a dutiful gander at their dreary antecedents, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Before wallowing in the cool of Paris’s Left Bank, you’re supposed to grapple with phenomenology and … Nazism, to be blunt. Husserl (a very odd fellow) and Heidegger (a furtive book-burner) you wouldn’t see staying up till all hours, smoking Gauloises Bleu, drinking, dancing and wearing black turtleneck sweaters. Which is probably why phenomenology remains less sexy than existentialism, and a good thing too.

You do have to know a little about these guys in order to understand existentialism, but it makes more sense, to me, to locate the greater part of its beginnings in the works of Soren Kierkegaard, perhaps because he is a real literary talent and much easier to read. You can see the origins of Sartre’s literary ideas in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, and, really, in lots of things: Joseph Conrad, for example. Contingency has long been the stuff of fiction.

After reading Sarah Bakewell’s elegant explications of Husserl and Heidegger I am pretty sure I still don’t understand them; perhaps I’m not meant to. But she grasps the controls and explains with grace and assurance what existentialism is, in so far as one can. Existentialism is hard to grasp, but so is everything, really, and that is the point of it. It’s more a process than a thing. Like the game of cricket.

Like many, Bakewell became enamoured of the existentialists when she was a teenager. (She was a little more serious about her infatuation than some, as she really did read Husserl and Heidegger.) Often viewed as ‘rebellious’ and ‘belligerent’, the appeal of existentialism to adolescents seems obvious. Can this mean that teenagers are the people who think correctly about the world? Who knew? Sartre always said you should look at something with ‘the eyes of the least favoured’.

Bakewell is a wry thinker about thinkers: ‘Anything that enabled Sartre to finish a book is to be applauded,’ she writes. He was notorious for never finishing things, not because he was a procrastinator but because he was always changing his mind in the middle of his huge projects. His biography of Flaubert, The Family Idiot, written on amphetamines, is almost three thousand pages long; asked to write a brief foreword to a collection of Jean Genet’s writing, he delivered seven hundred pages, to the exasperation of his publisher.

Talking of the hero of Sartre’s novel Nausea, Bakewell describes Roquentin’s resolve to write a book that will be make people ashamed of their existence: ‘Later, Sartre reflected that this solution was a bit too easy; can art really save us from the chaos of life? But it gave Roquentin somewhere to go in what might otherwise have been an endless, unresolved novel, “blooming, blossoming” in all directions.’ Nausea is one of the serious delights of twentieth century fiction.

When young, Bakewell wished that everything could be one vast existentialist café, a Flore or Deux Magots. Well, there are worse things to hope for from the world: existentialism is about ultimate, rapturous freedom, and taking responsibility for it.

She is very good on Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, thought to be the best and most important existentialist literary and philosophical work. Unfortunately for English speakers, both existing translations (of 1953 and 2009) seem to have screwed it up. So the question remains whether it’s by sexism, existentialism or stupidity that it has not yet become one of the ferocious and loved books of the world.

De Beauvoir and Sartre are the usually acclaimed existentialist ‘heroes’, if you go in for that kind of thing, but Bakewell’s own particular favourite was Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He was, she says, the best writer of them all, a suave, devil-may-care existentialist who loved wine, women, nice clothes and dancing, and he died where every good existentialist should die: at his desk.


This review appeared in the Herald, 12 March 2016.