A Question of Character
At the Existentialist Café
By Sarah Bakewell
Other Press: 2016
The story of the philosophical movement known as existentialism is full of big personalities, punctuated by world wars, and riven by personal feuds conducted in public. It gave us a host of icons: Sartre, walleyed and piping; Camus, moodily popping the collar of his leather jacket; Beauvoir, scribbling in hotel rooms. Whatever else you can say about it, existentialism was dramatic. Of course, there is a lot else you can say about it. For instance, what was it?
Partisans will gesture to the slogan, “existence precedes essence,” a sonorous bit of obscurity that basically means humans are both limited by circumstance and unlimited in self-interpretation. But that’s hardly a remarkable thesis in the Western philosophical tradition, which has always been obsessed by the problems of free will and determinism. In fact, the most salient characteristics of existentialism were not its ideas but its personalities, thinkers who made the ideas exciting, sexy, dangerous. Existentialism is the ultra-sophomore ideology, unmistakable as a style even when you have no idea what it means.
It was certainly my sophomore ideology. Reading Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café, I am reminded of going to college and becoming a philosophy major: staying up all night arguing about metaphysics over bottles of wine, affecting a pipe, relishing the louche, outré, and counter-cultural, and considering myself philosophically serious and superior for these choices. I, and those of my present-day students who are living the same experiment, have our archetype in the café lives of the existentialists. Bakewell writes that,
even when the existentialists reached too far, wrote too much, revised too little, made grandiose claims, or otherwise disgraced themselves, it must be said that they remained in touch with the density of life, and that they asked the important questions. Give me that any day, and keep the tasteful miniature for the mantelpiece.
Obviously the proper genre for studying such a philosophical movement is biography. And so Bakewell decided: “I want to explore the story of existentialism…in a way that combines the philosophical and biographical.”
This, her fourth book, applies a method of intellectual history she first tried out in How to Live (2010), a book about Montaigne. The method is not just popularization—though its effect is certainly to popularize its subjects—but something more like necromancy. Bakewell puts ideas back in the mouths that uttered them, then describes those mouths, their cracked or glistening lips, and conjures the events that moved them to speak. For Bakewell, theories and the books that convey them are acts in the drama of interesting lives. No matter how abstruse her subject, it lives.
Across the top of this book’s dust cover, some of the names of the philosophers she discusses are listed like the names of actors on a movie poster. Indeed, Bakewell’s models seem to be biopics and documentaries rather than other books. Most chapters begin with a scene rather than a thesis. Each chapter title includes a sub-heading like this for Chapter 5: “In which Jean-Paul Sartre describes a tree, Simone de Beauvoir brings ideas to life, and we meet Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the bourgeoisie.” As a consequence of these and other stratagems, Bakewell’s book is lively and odd enough to hold the attention of readers who don’t have the stamina for more standard types of intellectual history.
Only two philosophers actually identified themselves as existentialists: Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Consequently, Bakewell’s book is held together by the lives of these two. Sartre was perhaps the most famous philosopher of the 20th century, his face well-known, his defiant support for communism and his life-long open relationship with Simone de Beauvoir famously scandalous. Beauvoir was author of the classic The Second Sex and a brilliant philosophical autobiographer who should take her place alongside Augustine, Rousseau, and Bertrand Russell as a master of that genre on the strength of her five volumes of memoir. She was also an excellent novelist, winning the Prix de Goncourt for The Mandarins. She is belatedly coming into her proper reputation as a better philosopher and writer than Sartre.
Their lives encompassed too-interesting times. They lived in occupied Paris during WWII—Sartre even spent time in a POW camp, where he wrote several books—and they first ascended to prominence in the aftermath of the war. From the 40s to the 70s, they were the very definition of public intellectuals, taking positions in their magazine, Les Temps Modernes, on everything from world affairs to aesthetic fads, lecturing around the globe, holding court at the Café de Flore, pursuing their many love affairs. They are certainly interesting enough to carry a book themselves—and have done so previously, earning full-length paeans, parodies, and denunciations.
But Bakewell’s book also includes a host of secondary characters. The most vivid among these is the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger. He serves the classic biographical function of contrast. Heidegger’s philosophy, born of the same movement as Sartre’s philosophy—phenomenology—went in a nearly opposite direction. So did his life. While Sartre was catapulted to prominence by the outcome of WWII, Heidegger, a Nazi party-member, was cast into obscurity after the war, when he was banned from teaching. As the century wore on, the existentialists became the very models of “engaged writing”—one of their favorite terms—applying their philosophy promiscuously to the affairs of the day, while Heidegger furtively turned ever further from engagement, growing more mystical and less intelligible with every work, and—unforgivably—never openly rejecting his Nazism. For Bakewell, the key difference between Sartre and Heidegger was one of character:
Something is missing from [Heidegger’s] life and from his work. Iris Murdoch thought the missing thing was goodness, and therefore that his philosophy lacked an ethical centre or heart…One could call this missing element ‘humanity’, in several senses. Heidegger set himself against the philosophy of humanism, and he himself was rarely humane in his behavior. 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. He opened an early lecture series on Aristotle by saying, ‘He was born at such and such a time, he worked, and he died’ — as though that were all one needed to know about a life. He insisted his own life was uninteresting too: a view that would be convenient for him, if true.
By contrast, Sartre’s character for all his many, many flaws, strikes Bakewell as a good one:
I was surprised at how much I came to respect [Sartre] and even to like him.
Of course, he was monstrous. He was self-indulgent, demanding, bad-tempered. He was a sex addict who didn’t even enjoy sex, a man who would walk away from friendships saying he felt no regret…He defended a range of odious regimes, and made a cult of violence. He maintained that literature for its own sake is a bourgeois luxury, that writers must engage with the world, and that revising one’s writing is a waste of time—all of which I disagree with. I disagree with quite a lot in Sartre.
But there is that question of ‘character’—and Sartre is full of character. He bursts out on all sides with energy, peculiarity, generosity and communicativeness.
Something that might surprise you about Bakewell’s use of “character” in that last paragraph is how it combines the ethical and aesthetic senses of the term. Character can mean the set of virtues and vices that make up someone’s moral nature, or it can mean the representation of a person in a story. Having a “good character” could mean being ethically good or possessing a vivid personality. Combining these two senses is typical of Bakewell, whose affection for the existentialists and conviction of their importance seems to stem at least partly from their flamboyance.
Despite her profusion of characters and biographies—and besides Sartre, Beauvoir, and Heidegger, there are many others in the book, Merleau-Ponty the dancing philosopher, Edith Stein the phenomenologist murdered at Auschwitz and canonized by John Paul II, Hannah Arendt the expatriate theorist of totalitarianism and former lover of Heidegger, and others—make no mistake: At the Existentialist Café is not purely a rehearsal of events; it’s an exposition of ideas.
To explain what the existentialists believed, Bakewell turns to phenomenology, the German philosophical school that gave it birth. “Phenomenology,” she writes, “is essentially a method rather than a set of theories, and—at the risk of wildly oversimplifying—its basic approach can be described through a two-word command: DESCRIBE PHENOMENA.” Phenomenology’s motto is “to the things themselves!” It seeks to describe human experience as it comes to us primitively, in sensation and emotion, rather than skipping, as we are prone to do, directly to what things “really are.” As we grow older, we experience life less and less immediately, replacing perception of phenomena with a symbolic understanding of our environment. We learn to think of things in terms of what they mean and what they’re for and where they came from, rather than encountering them for their own sake or on their own terms.
But isn’t that a good thing, isn’t it growing up, becoming more at home in the world? Not according to the phenomenologists. When we deny the origin of all our knowledge in bodily experience of phenomena, we become easier to manipulate by ideology and rhetoric, blindly integrated into systems of words that bear less and less relation to reality. What’s more, we suffer from what aging does to our experience of the world. As people grow older, time seems to flow faster. Tragically, as life grows more precious and breath runs out we notice fewer things, we live in an increasingly solipsistic world. Because the subjective experience of time is tied to mental effort and concentration, the slackening of our consciousness hurries us down to death. Losing childhood’s direct engagement with phenomena hurts us epistemologically and personally.
Phenomenology is committed to fighting the slackening of consciousness. By “bracketing” what things mean and what they’re for and where they come from, it seeks to describe them as a child would experience them, making them new, noticing things about them that have been obscured by tradition and previous experience.
Phenomenology was founded by a German philosopher named Edmund Husserl. Bakewell spends a chapter on his life and ideas, because while “Husserlian phenomenology never had the mass influence of Sartrean existentialism…it was [Husserl’s] groundwork that freed Sartre and other existentialists to write so adventurously about everything.” But then throughout the book, a curious thing happens: Bakewell follows so many other phenomenologists besides the existentialists Sartre and Beauvoir that the book almost becomes a history of phenomenology with existentialism just one version of it among many.
Perhaps that’s no mistake. Bakewell muses like this:
The phenomenological imperative to go straight to experienced reality may have had a more lasting impact than Sartre’s more overt radicalism. Perhaps phenomenology, even more than existentialism, is the truly radical school of thought.
But the existentialists certainly liked to think of themselves as radical. The philosophy began to take shape after Sartre went to Germany in 1933 on a fellowship to study the writing of Husserl (and his famous student Heidegger), returning pregnant with his own philosophy. During the war years, as a soldier, in the POW camp, and then living in occupied Paris, Sartre worked on the notes for what would become his most important philosophical work, Being and Nothingness. It reprised a lot of the ideas of Husserl, casting them in a more literary prose, and it applied the method of phenomenology to Sartre’s own favorite phenomena.
The experience of phenomenological description, and what it implied about the original human position—that we are surrounded by meaningless phenomena which nevertheless press in on us, demanding a response—prompted Sartre to come up with the core concept of existentialism: existential freedom. We find ourselves in a world fundamentally without personal significance or moral law, and those desperately needful things will only arise from our own effort. Treating your own life as a locus of existential freedom is an ethical and political decision akin to “bracketing” experience as a phenomenologist. Therefore, in some ways existentialism is an ethical application of phenomenology, or at least of the phenomenological spirit.
But the big missing piece in the existentialist movement was a formal ethics. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre promised to follow up with a book on ethics, but he never did. This failure to follow through is not surprising, since an existentialist ethics is fundamentally situationist. Its goal is authenticity, an ideal deeply personal and hard to represent abstractly. Perhaps the real existentialist book of ethics can be found in all the specific moral and political interventions in Les Temps Modernes and in Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, with their urgent calls for readers not to remain satisfied with the commitments they receive from tradition and peers, but to think for themselves, and take responsibility for their own freedom.
This somewhat nebulous call to action brings us back to character. For the existentialists, as for Bakewell, the ethical and aesthetic meanings of the term fade into one another. Bakewell describes how Sartre and Beauvoir both had a weakness for strong characters, people with strange and unshakeable views. For example, Sartre became obsessed with, and wrote a book about, the literary delinquent Jean Genet, a lifelong rebel whose solitary principle was absolute commitment to whatever side was losing a conflict. Just as the existentialist movement is probably more memorable for its characters than its ideas, perhaps its implication is more about being a character—vivid, memorable, original—and choosing the kind of character you are, than it is about endorsing sophisticated philosophical theories. If so, then Bakewell’s book, brimming with character and characters, is the best possible introduction to existentialism.