“To philosophize is to learn how to die.” (Cicero)
There are books we remember all our lives. We remember where we first read them, the way they made us feel, the way the world seemed so fresh, so colorful, so new when we finished the last page. We remember how we never wanted them to end.
I had that experience reading Sarah Bakewell’s At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails (Other Press, 2016). I knew Bakewell was good—I reviewed her book on Montaigne a few years ago—but this is a masterwork of biography not just of a person, but people, places, a philosophy and a way of life. In fact, early on, she calls Existentialism more a mood than a philosophy and traces its lineage back to Job and Ecclesiastes in the Bible, up through St. Augustine and Blaise Pascal, to Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The last seven names are the focus of her volume along with the twentieth century and its rapid changes in technology, weaponry, and thinking. These writers wanted to ask the most important question: what does it mean to be? Or even, what does it mean to be in this time? What they discovered was that existence precedes essence, and that life must be savored and consumed. Always, always, moving forward; that was the way Sartre thought of it. And he did just that with his life partner and open marriage aficionado Simone de Beauvoir.
And how could the twentieth century not be an exciting and dangerous time? The view of these writers was shaped by genocides and wars and weapons of mass destruction. Sartre saw all of this and realized, human beings must now decide if they want to live. It was no longer a fact of birth that one lives when we can destroy ourselves over and over again. We can, and do, destroy at will. So why do we want to live? Why do we want to be? Finding the answer to those questions was Sartre’s mission.
As for place, there is Paris, specifically Saint-Germain-des-Pres hotels and cafes where Sartre and de Beauvoir lived and wrote and entered into intense discussions about ideas, about how to live. Bakewell is so good at bringing us into the Flore, the Deux Magots, the Bar Napoleon, the café society, and putting us into the middle of an exhilarating age. She describes cocktails and styles of dress and yes, those open relationships about which Sartre and de Beauvoir told each other everything. Indeed, it seems almost a private pornography of sorts, this accounting of love making with the Other. Yet, they remained life-long companions and now rest in ashes co-mingled together in a Montparnasse cemetery. They had no children, no property or estate, they never truly lived together at all, Bakewell tells us. They wrote and talked and argued together, a true marriage of the minds and occasionally, bodies. They created and edited journals and magazines, including the infamous Les Temps modernes. They never accepted academic appointments, choosing instead to live by freelance writing and school teaching. They simply wanted to write, to explore ideas, to live on the intellectual frontier, and they were not interested in riches or fame. In fact, Sartre rejected all prizes for his work, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964. Awards for his work went against his belief that a writer must remain independent. That he wrote like a novelist was the evaluation of both advocates and critics. But he wanted to capture the sensations of the world, the phenomena, the tiny details of richness so inherent in daily life but often ignored or overlooked. He wrote, quite simply, about what it meant to be free. His philosophy, and that of his colleagues, concerned how to live and experience life.
From early on, Sartre disavowed the existence of God, and in fact, the Catholic Church was often a target of his work. He regularly appeared on the Index of Prohibited Books, Bakewell tells us. Sartre’s views about the absence of a God were formed early on—he came to the realization at the age of eleven. On other ideas, he was not opposed to changing his mind should life give him ample evidence of another possibility.
Indeed all the writers profiled in the book were integral to the movement, even in controversy. There is Heidegger, a brilliant thinker and a Nazi, a paradox he did not escape nor apologize for in his lifetime. Bakewell spends a considerable portion of the book thoroughly examining his life, his work, and his dark side. She delves into the Algerian influence on Albert Camus’ work, and his conflicts and discussions and antagonisms with both Sartre and de Beauvoir. These are writers who worked within the palpable context of anxiety, freedom, the absence of a God, all of the things human beings have struggled with throughout history, and continue to wrestle with today. That was one of the unexpected joys of the book—this is a tome about how to live now even though its subject is a biography of a group of philosophers writing in a different century.
Bakewell also weaves in some of her own memories of reading these texts and these writers. She shows us where she made connections, where her thinking was fertilized by these pungent words and personalities. And of course, the book has no shortage of revelations: Alberto Giacometti catching de Beauvoir staring off into space: “How wild you look,” he tells her.
“It’s because I want to write and I don’t know what,” she replies.
Writing was everything to these philosophers. Sartre even reached the point where he stopped revising or rewriting, believing it was more important to get the ideas down on paper and out there. This led to some bloated and difficult first drafts in print, but it also allowed him to create steadily as he raced his growing blindness and health maladies.
What is different here from Bakewell’s writing on Montaigne, a writer who knew how to navel-gaze, is that she insists that these philosophers were adamantly not navel-gazers. De Beauvoir believed in the notion that “adults who withdraw from the world soon get bored.” No, they wanted to engage the world, not hold themselves above it or withdraw out of it, even with the bloody wars and destructive weapons.
For a book exploring the biography of a philosophical movement and those who practiced this way of living, the writing here is anything but dry. The conclusion for each of the main characters is draped in tragedy and the eddies of time. Bakewell takes us through each ending, including the circumstances of the death and in most cases, in what cemetery the philosopher now resides. Richard Wright, the ex-patriot African-American writer may have been assassinated by the CIA, she tells us. Heart attacks befell many of them. Hannah Arendt is “overgenerous” in her final image of Heidegger: she compares him to “the Greek philosopher Thales, an unworldly genius, who fell into a well because he was too busy looking at the stars to see the danger in front of him.” That may be the final, and best, epitaph for his Nazism.
Simone de Beauvoir outlived Sartre and wrote that all of the thinking, the discussions, the in-fighting, the life, “there is no place where it will all live again.” Bakewell characterizes Jean-Paul Sartre, the true hero of this book, as a “profound atheist, and a humanist to his bones. He outdid even Nietzsche in his ability to live courageously and thoughtfully in the conviction that nothing lies beyond, and that no divine compensation will ever make up for anything on this earth. For him, this life is what we have, and we must make of it what we can.”
Sarah Bakewell has brought those long ago Paris days and nights to life. The story is rich and sad and poignant and alive like no book I’ve read about Existentialism or any other philosophy. If as Cicero says, philosophy is about learning to die, first we must learn how to live. She demonstrated how Montaigne did just that in her first book; here, she further expounds on this theme in the Existentialist café with Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, and the others, ghosts of another time and life. Pull up a chair, brew the coffee dark, and settle in. The gang’s all here.