Author: Sarah Bakewell
Review: Alexandra Holland, immigration attorney at Ogletree Deakins
This book may be one to which I return numerous times in my life. Indeed, I read it twice this year because it is so full of philosophical insight and biographical intrigue that one cannot possibly grasp all its richness in one encounter.
At the Existentialist Café chronicles the development of modern existentialism from its roots in German phenomenology of the early 1930s through its continuing influence on contemporary pop culture today. Rather than take a dry, academic approach to a philosophical discussion, Bakewell tells a truly engaging, page-turning story of the everyday lives of the major existentialist thought leaders of the era. While primary attention is paid to the lives and ideas of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, these profiles serve merely as a foundation for Bakewell’s vivid portrait of an entire company of philosophers and how their individual experiences in the tumultuous Europe of the mid-20th century shaped their unique philosophical ideologies.
Bakewell’s depth of research into the diaries, memoirs and personal correspondence of Heidegger, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, among others, is apparent. She masterfully uses these primary sources, complimented by second-hand accounts, to describe in captivating detail the way in which each of the great existentialists tried, succeeded and quite often failed to employ their own developing ideas of freedom, being and authenticity into their interactions with one another and their engagement in the world.
Readers are transported into the Parisian cafés and university lecture halls where existentialist ideas were formulated and debated. We see Heidegger struggle to disavow his Nazi sympathies and ultimately withdraw to his secluded “clearing in the woods.” We watch Sartre try, unsuccessfully, to defend communism with existentialism. We observe as Beauvoir’s early love affair with Sartre evolves into a life-long partnership grounded in individual freedom, mutual passion and fervent political engagement. We see the rise and fall of Sartre and Beauvoir’s great friendships with Albert Camus, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Raymond Aron as they disagree over values, politics and editorial positions. We witness the French philosophers experience German occupation and the German philosophers accept defeat.
Existentialist ideas of freedom and humanism fueled the century’s major social movements of feminism, gay rights, anti-racism, anti-classism, and anti-colonialism as they spread through German-occupied France, post WWII Europe, the Algerian and Czech wars for independence, the American civil rights era, and the Cold War. By examining the lives, choices and evolving philosophies of the existentialists during these periods, we are presented with important questions to ask of our own lives in the 21st century: How will technological advancement impact our personal freedom and privacy? How do social and historical constructions of gender continue to affect our interactions with others? How do our own personal values call us to political and social action, and how do we resolve the conflicts which our values necessarily create? Can we remain friends with those who have markedly different systems of belief from our own? How much of our individual authenticity is lost in a world of smartphones and social media, consumerism and corporate greed, political apathy and religious extremism?
Neither Bakewell nor the philosophers of whom she writes provide much comfort to the anxiety induced by these questions and the many contingencies of life. If we are left with one solace from studying the lives and ideas of the existentialists, it is that although human existence is exceptionally flawed, we as individuals have great potential. Our lives are what we choose to make of them, and such responsibility carries both tremendous weight and endless possibility.