AT THE EXISTENTIALIST CAFÉ
Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails
By Sarah Bakewell
Sarah Bakewell’s book is a joint portrait of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Albert Camus, Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger and a half-dozen other European writers and philosophers who embodied the movements in 20th-century thought known as existentialism and phenomenology. The apricot cocktails in her subtitle and her sometimes breezy tone — “I like to imagine them in a big, busy cafe of the mind, probably a Parisian one” — seem to promise an undemanding, gossipy romp. Instead, she judges and explains the ways in which each writer responded to the moral and political crises of the 1930s and after, and her book asks demanding questions about the ways in which people think about themselves and their relations with others. She shapes her answers in the form of biographical narratives, because her central theme is that the large impersonal ideas pursued by much modern philosophy are less profound and illuminating than the varied and conflicting truths found in stories of individual lives.
Those stories, in this book, include impressively lucid descriptions of what these thinkers thought and what they said in their writings and cafe arguments. Bakewell is often annoyed but never defeated by Heidegger’s obscurity, and some of her most exciting pages are the engaged, unsimplifying accounts she offers of complex philosophies, even ones that finally repel her.
In her first chapter she summarizes the kinds of things that existentialists do. This is not the same as saying what existentialism is, because to say what it is would present it as something static and definable, whereas it exists only in the form of actions, what happens when someone thinks existentially. Briefly, she explains, “existentialists concern themselves with individual, concrete human existence,” and individual existence is “whatever I choose to make of myself at every moment.” An existentialist’s driving concern is human freedom and the responsibilities and anxieties that are inseparable from it.
The stories she tells begin in medias res, around 1932, in a real Parisian cafe where Sartre is intrigued by his school friend Raymond Aron’s report of a new philosophical movement, phenomenology. It concerned itself, Aron explained, not with the theoretical or moral meaning of things, but with the things themselves and the immediate experience we have of those things. The apricot cocktails are in Bakewell’s subtitle because, as Beauvoir recalled, they were drinking them in the cafe when Aron said you could “make philosophy” out of them.
After this, “At the Existentialist Café” leaves France for Germany and goes backward in time to the early-20th-century origins of phenomenology in the work of Edmund Husserl and the stirrings of reaction against it in Husserl’s early acolyte Heidegger. From phenomenology, with its emphasis on the experience of things, it was a short step — for, among others, Sartre, Beauvoir and their friend Merleau-Ponty — to existentialism, with its emphasis on the experience of making choices, and on the wider question of what it means to be in the world at all.
At this point, around the early 1930s, the story divides, like a novel by George Eliot or Tolstoy, between the characters who, despite missteps and delusions, eventually, like Beauvoir, come out more or less right, and the ones who come out wrong, like Heidegger and his followers. What divides these two sets of characters are their attitudes toward power and toward other people. Those who got things right were the ones who cared most about equal relations among people and cultures and about everyone’s personal uniqueness, and who had little or no appetite for power. They also saw the importance of childhood as the source of the adult self, as a time of powerlessness, irrationality and imagination. Merleau-Ponty “thought child psychology was essential to philosophy. . . . Childhood looms large in Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’ and in Sartre’s biographies.”
Heidegger got things wrong by turning away from individual human lives to statements about something invisible: being itself and the many varieties of being that he identified, including “Being-in-the-world” and “Being-with”:
“He set no store by the individuality and detail of anyone’s life, least of all his own. It is no coincidence that, of all the philosophers in this book, Heidegger is the one who refused to see the point of biography.”
Heidegger wrote about the urgency of resisting “the they,” what Bakewell explains as “an impersonal entity that robs us of the freedom to think for ourselves.” As she observes, this sounds like a call to resist Nazi tyranny, “but that was not what Heidegger meant.” Appointed by the Nazis in 1933 to “the post of rector of Freiburg University, a job that required him to enforce the new Nazi laws,” Heidegger easily convinced himself, perhaps from reserves of power-worship hidden within, that obedience to Nazism was a form of obedience not to “the they” but to the deepest demands of being itself.
Heidegger devoted much of his philosophy to objects rather than people — objects as instruments for use, things (in his phrase) “to hand.” In his willingness to serve as an instrument of Nazi power, “he seemed to be attracted less by Nazi ideology than by the idea of Hitler dexterously and firmly molding the country into a new form.” He told the appalled psychologist turned philosopher Karl Jaspers, “One must get in step.”
One of many persuasive surprises in Bakewell’s book is her suggestion that Heidegger’s prose sometimes resembles Gertrude Stein’s in its deliberate linguistic strangeness, a resemblance that goes deeper than style. Bakewell mentions Heidegger’s concept of the “ontological difference,” the distinction between (in her words) an “individual entity” and “the Being that such particular beings have.” (Ontology is the study of being in itself.) She then quotes a passage from Stein’s “The Making of Americans” that “foreshadows . . . the ontological difference” by making a distinction between what Stein calls “the being in” characters and the characters as people.
Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty are the only two thinkers who get chapters to themselves in Bakewell’s book. She portrays Merleau-Ponty as both intellectually admirable and personally appealing. Like all the philosophers in the book, Merleau-Ponty was concerned with the ways in which human beings are shaped by structures and forces outside themselves, but while many other philosophers thought of those outside forces as forms of imprisonment or compulsion, Merleau-Ponty saw them as the means of choosing freedom. “The aspects of our existence that limit us, Merleau-Ponty says, are the very same ones that bind us to the world and give us scope for action and perception.” Bakewell describes Merleau-Ponty’s kindness and his self-sacrificing sense of obligation and responsibility, and, despite her admiration for Beauvoir, refuses to endorse Beauvoir’s dismissal of these traits as bourgeois hypocrisy.
In contrast with Merleau-Ponty’s generosity — and Sartre’s extravagant generosity in the midst of his pugnaciousness — Bakewell records “the single documented example I have come across of Heidegger actually doing something nice.” Even in this example, however, Heidegger did something nice only by proxy, having asked a book-dealer friend, shortly before the poet Paul Celan gave a reading in Freiburg, to arrange for the city’s bookshops to display Celan’s poems in their windows.
One episode sums up the philosophical differences at the center of Bakewell’s narrative. After World War II, Heidegger sent some of his recent writings to Karl Jaspers: “Jaspers was repelled. Picking out Heidegger’s pet phrase describing language as the ‘house of Being,’ he wrote back, ‘I bristle, because all language seems to be only a bridge to me’ — a bridge between people, not a shelter or home.”
Similarly, Emmanuel Levinas, an early follower of Heidegger, rejected his teachings by creating “a philosophy that was essentially ethical,” concerned with our relations with each other, not our being in ourselves. “For Levinas, we literally face each other, one individual at a time, and that relationship becomes one of communication and moral expectation. We do not merge; we respond to one another.”
Bakewell acknowledges Heidegger’s appeal to readers who are susceptible to seduction by obscure displays of power. When she first read him in her early 20s, she fell under his “magician’s spell.” Reading him today, she says, half of herself is “re-enchanted,” but only half. “I feel the same gravitational pull,” but “I find myself struggling to get free.”
“Heidegger once wrote that ‘to think is to confine yourself to a single thought,’ ” Bakewell concludes, “but I now feel that this is the very opposite of what thinking ought to be. Thinking should be generous and have a good appetite.”
An unspoken theme of Bakewell’s book is the variety of ways in which academic philosophy can be distorted by power relations. Some of her characters, notably Merleau-Ponty, were immune to the temptations that came with the status of a European professorship. Others, like Husserl and Heidegger, demanded obeisance. Even Levinas, late in life, became impatient with disagreement: “He still had something in common with his former mentor,” Heidegger. In the European academic hierarchy, the philosopher who was most inhuman was the one honored with the deepest adulation. An American visitor to Heidelberg University in the 1950s was surprised to find no courses on Heidegger, presumably as a result of his Nazi past. But the intellectual reality differed from the official list of courses. “I quickly learned,” he wrote, “that all courses were on Heidegger.”
Bakewell has a special affection for philosophers who stayed free of the academy, especially Sartre and Beauvoir. She writes of Sartre, “Of course, he was monstrous,” but she forgives him, convincingly, for having been “full of character. He bursts out on all sides with energy, peculiarity, generosity and communicativeness.” (On Heidegger she endorses what Sartre said about him: “Heidegger has no character.”) She treasures the Beauvoir of “The Second Sex” and her later philosophical autobiographies, books that focus on Beauvoir’s individual story, always with a rich sense of herself in the midst of what existentialists called their “situation,” an outer and inner reality that included the social reality of being perceived as a woman and the physical reality of living in a woman’s body.
Sarah Bakewell’s previous book was an engaging biography of Montaigne that was also a subtle exposition of Montaigne’s writings. Its audacious title was “How to Live,” and her new book deserves to be read as a further study in the same enlivening theme.