A fine book, and timely. It provokes much thought, about how we live our lives, how we can better see the world and our own place within it. Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existential Cafe is a group biography, in a sense, about several individuals, a movement, a few key countries, and one city, especially: Paris. She gives us the philosophical background, places her main characters in proper context, shows how they lived and loved, together and apart.
Some of them had fun, despite the talk of anxiety, nothingness and the absurd. Perhaps because of that talk. They drank the night away. Often. Some danced and danced well. They didn’t seem to sleep much at all, especially Sartre who we learn took too many drugs to wake up and fall asleep. And, for a time, they shook things up and all kinds of people wanted to know what the big deal was, especially in America. Many wanted to be existentialists, or dress like them, or think they dressed like them. Because cross-cultural ties were crossing back and forth, and the French and German existentialists often wanted to emulate certain aspects of American life, while Americans wanted to emulate the existentialists. It was all the rage in the late 1940s and 1950s and still haunts our culture, though we no longer really see it or acknowledge it. In our movies, especially, when the subject turns to authenticity, nonconformity, the absurdity of life, existentialism is likely there.
The book builds. It’s fairly short, given the subject matter, at roughly 327 pages before notes and such. At least it seems short. Too short, for me. I wanted to spend more time with my old friends, and I really liked that the author and I first learned about most of these characters at roughly the same time, give or take a few years. The 1980s. A time, ironically, that seemed like the anti-existentialist decade par excellence, and still does. The decade of Reagan, New Wave music, John Hughes and Wall Street. It was a rebellion against the rebellion of the 1960s, and the dazed and confused 1970s. It was a running away from all things noir, “authentic,” too deep, into an embrace of masks and the future, aliens and weird science and the beginnings of the mass computer age. It was an embrace of “nerds” who were different from their classmates, but the same as their peers. It was, like all decades, a bit dazed and confused too.
But I digress. Sarah Bakewell’s book isn’t about all of that. It’s not a review of the 1980s. It’s mostly a story of Dasein, Heidegger’s Being, and how his work sprang in part from Husserl’s phenomenology, and how Husserl’s work sprang in part from Brentano’s, and how Heidegger influenced Sartre and so on, and how Heidegger’s Dasein fell out of favor, for a host of reasons, but the chief being his time as a Nazi. And it’s about the opposite part of the political spectrum from that, too, the left. How Sartre and Camus, both leftists, broke over political issues, and how Sartre and Merleau-Ponty also broke over leftist politics. But it’s also about one of the most unfairly neglected philosophers of that time, Simone de Beauvoir, and her most important contributions, her life with Sartre and others, her fierce loyalties. She deserves a renaissance all her own.
Existentialism itself does too. It’s about Time.