At The Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell



My husband reads more seriously than I do, in fields that range from social history to science to philosophy. I rarely follow, but this book, with its beguiling subtitle of “Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails” piqued my interest. I had a vague idea of what existentialism is: the idea that modern life is absurd, that we must take a leap into creating meaning in our lives, that living without making such a decision is living “in bad faith.” I took a course in college called “Twentieth-Century French Novels In Translation,” which included Camus’ The Stranger and Sartre’s Nausea, but I lacked the knowledge (and the maturity) to appreciate the philosophical precepts of these two giants of existentialism. If only I’d had this book, back then!

Bakewell has turned a survey of existentialist thought into a meaningful and inspirational journey. She explores existentialism’s roots in phenomenology, describing the work of Husserl and Heidegger. And she highlights the chief proponents of existentialism, from Camus and Jaspers to Merleau-Ponty and Beauvoir. However, Sartre stands tall (ironically, as he was only about five feet in height) as the dominant voice, with his principle, “Existence precedes essence.” Bakewell explains:

. . . roughly it means that, having found myself thrown into the world, I go on to create my own definition (or nature, or essence), in a way that never happens with other objects or life forms. You might think you have defined me by some label, but you are wrong, for I am always a work in progress. I create myself constantly through action, and this is so fundamental to my human condition, that, for Sartre, it is the human condition, from the moment of first consciousness to the moment when death wipes it out. I am my own freedom, no more, no less.

The lives these philosophers led were just as interesting and enlightening (and occasionally horrifying) as the books they wrote and the lectures they delivered. Using biography to illuminate philosophy, Bakewell probes how these individuals influenced each other, how they sometimes nurtured and sometimes callously “cancelled” (to use a current term) each other. “Philosophical conversations between thinkers who had invested so much of themselves in their work often became emotional, and sometimes downright argumentative. Their intellectual battles form a long chain of belligerence that connects the existentialist story end to end.”

Bridging two world wars and new technologies such as film and the atomic bomb, the arc of existentialist thought is linked with the struggles and the advancements of the twentieth century.  “[T]he story of existentialism, as it spread around the world in the fifties and sixties,” Bakewell says, “by feeding feminism, gay rights, the breaking down of class barriers, and anti-racist and anti-colonialist struggles . . . helped to change the basis of our existence today in fundamental ways.”

Reading At the Existentialist Café has been a highlight of my reading year. It reminded me of what it means to be alive: the truly awesome privilege of being able to think, understand, and appreciate life—and the equally awesome responsibility of deciding how it is I want to live.