Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Existentialist Café

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre at various cafés, especially in Paris. Lower left: also Claude Lantzmann.
American cover.
Coffee and cigarettes played a big role at the existentialist café. That is, the literal cafe where existentialists met, as depicted in the photos above, which I shamelessly culled from around the internet. I suspect that little is known about what they ate!

Sarah Bakewell's fascinating book, At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, stresses a more symbolic version of this café, which was open mainly in the middle years of the twentieth century. As in her earlier book about Michel de Montaigne, she combines personal details from the lives of philosophers with highly approachable explanations of their work.

Perhaps the most interesting discussion in At The Existentialist Café concerns the great importance of Simone de Beauvoir's book The Second Sex, which she says "had an even greater impact in Britain and America than in France. It can be considered the single most influential work ever to come out of the existentialist movement." (p. 210)

"Ideas are interesting," Bakewell writes in her final summary, "but people are vastly more so. That is why, among all the existentialist works, the one I am least likely to tire of is Beauvoir’s autobiography, with its portrait of human complexity and of the world’s ever-changing substance." (pp. 326-327)

Bakewell begins with the phenomenologists, precursors of the existentialists, but her main focus is on the Parisians: Sartre, de Beauvoir, and their constantly changing circle of colleagues and friends, including the many rifts, breaks, fights, and disillusionments that occurred between the various participants.

The Nazi era before and during World War II was central to the honesty of the philosophers -- she covers Heidigger's Nazi commitment in detail, as well as the experiences and reactions of the Paris group to the defeat of France, the occupation, and the many deportations and persecutions. For example, in the wartime life of Simone de Beauvoir:
"One necessary adjustment was learning to put up with the idiotic and moralistic homilies emanating every day from the collaborationist government — reminders to respect God, to honour the principle of the family, to follow traditional virtues. It took her back to the ‘bourgeois’ talk she had so hated in her childhood, but this time backed by a threat of violence. Ah — but perhaps such talk was always backed by hidden threats of violence? She and Sartre later made this belief central to their politics: fine-sounding bourgeois values, for them, were never to be trusted or taken at face value." (pp. 140-141).
The Existentialist Café covers philosophers' lives and thoughts, and even covers parodies of their work that appeared when they were overwhelmingly popular.
"Sartre’s friend Boris Vian spoofed the craze in his 1947 novel L’écume des jours, translated as Froth on the Daydream or Mood Indigo. This surreal and playful romance includes, as a side character, a famous philosopher called Jean-Sol Partre. When Partre gives a lecture, he arrives on an elephant and mounts a throne, accompanied by his consort the Countess de Mauvoir." (pp. 165-166)
Or about the style of the existentialists, who gave the world the black turtleneck sweater as a statement of commitment or solidarity or something:
"To go with the jazz, blues and ragtime after the war, people sought out American clothes, readily available in flea markets; there was a particular craze for plaid shirts and jackets. If your twenty-first-century time machine could take you back to a Parisian jazz club immediately after the war, you would not find yourself in a sea of existentialist black; you would be more likely to think you’d walked into a lumberjacks’ hoedown. ... The sleek black turtleneck arrived afterwards — and when Americans in turn adopted that fashion, few realised they were returning a sartorial compliment." (pp. 167-168)

UK cover.
Bakewell offers a variety of both unexpected and expected insights and observations about the existentialists and their time and influence. A few more quotes that I found interesting --
"The word phenomenon has a special meaning to phenomenologists: it denotes any ordinary thing or object or event as it presents itself to my experience, rather than as it may or may not be in reality. ... Phenomenology gives a formal mode of access to human experience. It lets philosophers talk about life more or less as non-philosophers do, while still being able to tell themselves they are being methodical and rigorous." (p. 40-43)
"For Sartre, the awakened individual is ... a person who is engaged in doing something purposeful, in the full confidence that it means something. It is the person who is truly free." (p. 152)
"One sometimes has the feeling, reading Sartre, that he did indeed borrow from other people’s ideas and even steal them, but that everything becomes so mixed with his own strange personality and vision that what emerges is perfectly original." (p. 106) 
"In April 1933, all doubts about Heidegger were blown away when he accepted the post of rector of Freiburg University, a job that required him to enforce the new Nazi laws. It also required him to join the party. He did so, and then he delivered rousing pro-Nazi speeches to the students and faculty. He was reportedly seen attending the Freiburg book burning on 10 May, trooping through a drizzly evening by torchlight towards the bonfire in the square just outside the university library — almost on the steps of his own philosophy department." (pp. 79-80)  
"Heidegger set himself against the philosophy of humanism, and he himself was rarely humane in his behaviour. He set no store by the individuality and detail of anyone’s life, least of all his own."(p. 320). 
I especially enjoyed the wrap-up in At The Existentialist Café, where Bakewell describes how the existentialists' ideas of "rebellion and authenticity" reappeared in the student protests and general spirit of the 1960s and 1970s. (p. 292)

The book is wonderful to read, offering incredible clarity. As you read you feel enlightened. Could I summarize and explain what I read? I won't answer that question.

6 comments:

Vagabonde said...

You gave an exciting review of this book – one to put on my list. Right now I am trying to weed out our books toward our future move. It is a very difficult task. I have Le Deuxième Sexe de Simone de Beauvoir that I must have read in the 1950s – it has been so long, maybe I should re-read it. I also have several books of JP Sartre including L’Etre et le Néant (Being and Nothingness in English,) which I don’t think I even finished. A while back I read ‘Paris after the Liberation: 1944-1949’ and I really enjoyed it (by Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper.) As teenagers in Paris we certainly thought of ourselves as a type of existentialists – I wore a black turtleneck and a plaid skirt or plaid trousers – that was the style then (trying to look like Juliette Gréco!) Of course I spent many evenings in the cellars around Blvd St Germain and St Michel, like Le Tabou and La Huchette – jazz was very important to me. Thinking of it, it’s like a very different world, and it was. I spent so many hours discussing with friends in cafes, drinking just a cup of coffee, in the Latin Quarter where now mostly tourists gather. What a time it was.

Tamara said...

This sounds really interesting. I love the idea of an existentialist cafe, somewhere to go for these deep and probing questionful discussions. I doubt I'll ever read this, but I have enjoyed your review alot. Thanks.

Tina said...

I have not heard of this book but it certain,y sounds interesting, Thought provoking and great book for discussion in the evenings when we enjoy a bourbon and listening to music.

Jeanie said...

This is one I would definitely consider putting on the list -- what an intriguing premise, covering all these remarkable lives in the context of the cafe. Your review is so very thorough, it's almost as good as reading the book itself. I really think you should be doing this for someone for pay! Your efforts certainly may win praise but with all you put into it, I'd love to see you get published to a wider view!

Paulita said...

I know so little about existentialism, but I love the photos and the way you boiled it down. One of my sons was a bit obsessed with existentialism for awhile.
Thanks for playing along with Dreaming of France today. Here’s my Dreaming of France meme

Kari said...

This is really interesting - thanks for the review!