This is my review of At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell.
I read this popular philosophy in search of enlightenment on a fundamental but elusive theme: “the nature of being”.
Sarah Bakewell is strong on anecdotal biography, linked to a vivid sense of time and place. Sartre with his “down-turned grouper lips.. and eyes pointing in different directions..but if you forced yourself to stick with the left eye, you would invariably find it watching you with warm intelligence”. When held as a POW by the Germans, “his eyes gave him his escape route”, in the improbable form of a medical pass to leave the camp for treatment. Yet he missed the comradeship of being forced into close quarters with other prisoners. It filled him with fear to enter a Parisian café to observe “the few drinkers… more distant than the stars…each entitled to a huge section of bench…these men shimmering… within their tubes of rarefied light seem inaccessible to me”. Then he enraged his soul-mate Simone de Beauvoir by criticising her for having given in to the practicalities of life under Occupation, by buying tea on the black market, and signing a paper to certify that “she was not a Jew or a Freemason”.
I liked the illustrations which, being untitled, are open to one’s own interpretation: the influential Heidegger and Husserl, his former mentor and the “father of phenomenology” (definable as “the ways we experience things”), standing on a sunny slope against a background of wooded hills. Are the two men arguing over their different viewpoints, or exchanging polite banalities to mask how far they have grown apart?
The author ends the first chapter with useful if partial definitions of what existentialists do, in their concern with “individual, concrete human existence”. Individuals are responsible for all their actions, in a world where, as Sartre realised to his initial horror, everything is “contingent” and “it could all have happened a different way”, if individuals had taken alternative courses of action.
The author sheds light on some difficult ideas like Sartre’s “specific nothingness” with the example that when one has made an appointment in a café to meet a friend, the most important factor is the absence of that person. She is good on analysing the importance of Simone de Beauvoir’s arguably undervalued “The Second Sex” and the theories of the polymath philosopher-cum-psychologist Merleau-Ponty, also underestimated. His ideas may seem more accessible than most since they are underpinned with a scientific knowledge of neurology. It is easy to relate with a sense of relief to his views that an understanding of child psychology is essential to sound philosophy, that we need to study perception scientifically to make sense of the connection between our consciousness and the world around us. We have to connect socially with other people to exist in a meaningful way ourselves, rather than speculate about the reality of existence external to our own, as many philosophers have done.
Sarah Bakewell refers frequently to the opaqueness, and radical shifts in thinking of Sartre, Heidegger and Levinas. Sometimes, this seems like an excuse for the inability to present a coherent explanation of the essence of their ideas. With what often seems like the prime aim of entertaining us, complex theories are fragmented into bite-sized chunks, with explanations descending into a kind of woolly gimmickry which falls apart under close scrutiny: “If you had to sum up Heidegger’s opening sally in ‘Being and Time’ in one word, that word might be ‘wow!’..As a fresh starting point for philosophy, this ‘wow!’ is itself a kind of Big Bang. It’s also a big snub for Husserl… and his followers…..They have forgotten the brute reality on which all of us ought to be constantly stubbing our toes….Wake up, phenomenologists! Remember being – out there, in here, under you, above you, pressing in on you. Remember the things themselves, and remember your own being!”
Although I found parts of this book very interesting and felt the need to reread it, I also doubted whether this would actually add to my understanding. Apart from the fact that a chapter or two pulling together the essential theories would have been useful, I cannot escape the sense that much of the philosophy covered is highly arbitrary and subjective. It may appeal to one’s emotions, like Heidegger’s “notions of humans as a clearing into which Being emerges into the light”, but such ideas merge into each other in a muddled morass.