Books feature

Sartre, de Beauvoir and Sheffield teenagers; the weird glamour of existentialism

Sarah Bakewell reminds us how popular — and de rigueur — the philosophy once was, even though very few people understood it

27 February 2016

9:00 AM

27 February 2016

9:00 AM

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails Sarah Bakewell

Chatto, pp.440, £16.99

I’m certainly the wrong person to be reviewing this book, never having succeeded in understanding anything that a philosopher said about anything — but particularly the collected utterances of the existentialist school. Nevertheless, I think it fair to say that between the ages of 15 and 18, I had the wardrobe down to a T. In Yorkshire in the early 1980s, if you wanted to be existentialist, you wore duffle coats and drainpipe jeans and, of course, the famous black polo-neck. I knew kids who smoked Gauloises and one who actually went in for smoking a pipe. Your spectacles were those NHS free type popularised by John Lennon; your shoes might be Hush Puppies. (A little later they were black Doc Martens with thick rubber soles.) And in your pocket was a book which you took out at regular intervals and frowned over in your existentialist way. Whether any of this behaviour and dressing up got anyone laid, which was, after all, the obvious intention, I can’t say.

What was the book in your pocket? It might be a novel — I carried the first volume of Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Roads to Liberty around for years. Of course, it had to be in French, whether you could understand it or not. Albert Camus’s L’Etranger was a popular choice among the Lower Sixth, but the real sophisticates regarded it, like Sartre’s more famous La Nausée, with some scorn. After all, you’d probably been taught L’Etranger by Mr Pridding for A-level French as a set text, which was about as unexistentialist as you could get — not even managing to make an existential choice about your own reading.

Iris Murdoch was a risky option: undeniably black polo-neck in tendency, but then your mum had also read her. Better were the existentialist philosophy texts themselves. Long were the hours we spent poring over copies of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time trying to make them look as well-thumbed as possible.

This bizarre behaviour was surprisingly common. When an amateur dramatic company put on Sartre’s Huis Clos in Sheffield university’s excellent drama studio, the theatre was packed — every duffle coat hunched over in frowning concentration. It was all great fun.


I have to admit, though, I haven’t the slightest idea what existentialism consisted of, or what philosophical substance it may or may not have contained. If you want an incisive discussion of its abstract propositions you may wish to turn elsewhere. Sarah Bakewell was, like many of us, a teenage existentialist, but her engagement with the movement’s thought was rather more substantial. She has now written a surprisingly sparkling book about its history and principal figures, which is, happily, more concerned than many philosophical texts with this interesting question: why did existentialism, unlike most other philosophical movements, persuade its devotees to dress up in a certain way, pull faces and listen to Juliette Gréco? (Wittgenstein was mad keen on the movies of Betty Grable and Carmen Miranda, but I never heard of any of his followers imitating him in this regard.)

Reassuringly, not even the professional existentialist philosophers could always understand what they were talking about. Edmund Husserl saw himself as the founder of phenomenology, but his friend and pupil Martin Heidegger wrote that ‘no one knows what that is’.’Most people could not understand Heidegger at all. One listener to a lecture had the delusion of understanding what he was saying, and then immediately fainted. Heidegger’s style, full of proposals about philosophical values such as ‘ahead-of-itself-already-being-in-(the-world) as being-together-with(beings encountered within the world)’ may be refined or may be gibberish.

Confusingly, one of the people who couldn’t understand Heidegger was Heidegger himself, who said that he had ‘nothing to do with the Heideggerian profundity’. He couldn’t decide whether his philosophy ought to lead him to side with Nazism or to oppose it. After an unfortunate period, as rector of a university, spent evicting Jews, he retreated into comedy kitsch straight out of the nature notes column in Der Stürmer, the weekly Nazi tabloid published by Julius Streicher:

When the young farm boy drags his heavy sled up the slope and guides it, piled high with beech logs, down the dangerous descent to his house, when the herdsman, lost in thought and slow of step, drives his cattle up the slope, when the farmer in his shed gets the countless shingles ready for his roof, my work is of the same sort.

The existentialists’ high period of glamour came with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. The trappings are irresistible. The turban! The Deux Magots! The jazz clubs! And the timing was perfect. After the second world war, a philosophy which seemed to be proposing that man can only act with freedom if he chooses seemed a good one. Notions that the world is full of stuff happening for no particular reason, that ‘everything is contingent’, made sense. Some of this bore definite fruit in people’s lives. There was, it seemed in de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, no particular reason why women should be treated in this subservient way. It was all contingency and a failure to make any kind of choice, like the Holocaust. In years to come, of course, it would also explain to a hundred thousand teenagers why their cry of ‘Oh God it’s so unfair’ was phenomenologically soundly based, and they should put on a black polo-neck sweater immediately.

Interestingly, however, it was one school of philosophy that profoundly influenced imaginative writing, and in particular fiction. Many of its philosophical insights were actually useful to the novelist: the idea that action could be random and unmotivated as a gesture of freedom stopped everyone in novels behaving as practically as an accountant totting up motives.

No novelist on earth could have used Heidegger — except as a figure to be parodied, as Günter Grass did in Dog Years. But his insight into the difference between things that are just there, unthinkingly, as our efficient tools, and the resistant and obnoxious objects of the world that stuff becomes when it stops working is an excellent lesson for the imaginative writer. (There’s a good book about this by Bill Brown called A Sense of Things.)

The novel without objects is a sad and paltry confection; it was the existentialists who, from Husserl onwards, made an effort to experience the facts of the world in all their defective resistance, staring at cups of coffee and trees. Sartre added a novelist’s elaboration to this: that while one is staring at a tree, one may become aware of another man staring from a different angle at the same tree, and ‘the green of the grass turns itself towards the other man as well as towards me, and some of my universe drains off in his direction’. No one has ever succeeded in turning Kant into a set of directions for the novelist, but here is as good an instruction for the novelist imagining the world from other people’s points of view as any. It’s worth remembering that the first generation of French existentialists included Camus, one of the greatest geniuses of the French novel.

Defects of my own intellect limited my enjoyment of Bakewell’s interesting and amusing book. I went along cheerfully with tales of the Resistance, the événements of 1968 and the Colin Wilson publicity explosion, but found myself gazing at sentences about Mitsein and Thrownness with a blankness which in no way reflects their undoubted lucidity. Bakewell does succeed in making the subject relevant by showing how those ideas developed into questions over racial politics and the rights of the individual. At the Existentialist Café may not be austere enough to satisfy the professional philosopher — let alone the professional English philosopher, who would deny that any of these people were practising philosophy at all — but it makes, on the whole, a pleasant and entertaining book for the rest of us thickoes.

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  • Sean L

    This is disingenuous: you wouldn’t say you couldn’t understand Nietzsche or Kierkegaard. But there’s nothing in principle more difficult to understand about Heidegger’s basic philosophy than in those two of his predecessors, however obscure some if his terms might appear at first. Throwness, for instance, which of course is translated from the German, Heidegger being German, merely means that human being or human existence is arbitrary: none of us being here by choice, ours or anyone else’s, we’re *thrown* into the world.

    Mitsein just means being-with, which Heidegger says is constitutive for Da-sein (being there), his term for the being that we happen to be, the human being, the human predicament. These terms or categories, which in essence refer to simple things that we all take for granted in everyday life (which is Heidegger’s point) have to be understood in the context of the philosophical tradition Heidegger was countering. This is the idea of a basic divide between the human subject as an isolated ego ‘in here’ against an “objective” world ‘out there’.

    For Heidegger to be human is already to be immersed in a world invested with meaning and signifance. Thus being-in-the-world and being-with-others is part of what it is to be human in the first place: we’re not somehow first in the world by ourselves as it were and then subsequently discover other people and things by some process of scientific investigation. But that’s how it appears in much of the philosophical tradition, from Descartes’s self that can only be certain of its own doubt, to the British philosophers like Bertrand Russell for whom the “external world” is to be inferred from what he terms one’s sense data.

    For Heidegger being in the world, and all that implies, is not optional, not an inference, not a matter of knowledge or perception, it’s just fundamental to what being human means or is. It’s strange that Heidegger is considered difficult or obscure compared with someone like Russell, when so much of it is founded in the currency of everyday existence. No one would think of an “external world” or doubt that the world existed, that it was merely an inference from one’s senses, who hadn’t first read it in a book. And of course the theory itself is based on scientific theories about the nature of the physical world. All Heidegger’s saying in essence, at least against that standpoint, is that such scientific theories already presuppose a more primordial engagement with the world.

    • ardenjm

      The post-Cartesian, Humean, Logical Positivist and Analytical Anglo-Saxon tradition is profoundly warped and de-forms the human intelligence (to say nothing of its dessicating effects on the human heart!).
      (Not that Nietzsche’s children on the continent are any happier or truer, though, just wrong about different things or in different ways.)
      Both traditions get one or two things right and a whole raft of things utterly wrong.

      Thankfully there is still Aristotelian-Thomism which some people do manage to find their way to when they realise that the two alternatives mortify their adherents.

      • sidor

        Aquinas didn’t invent anything: he just adapted the Platonistic ideas taken from Maimonides to the Catholic ideology.

        • ardenjm

          You confuse novelty with profoundity and truthfulness.

          And for Aquinas it’s more Aristotle than Plato in his fundamental commitment to hylomorphism and act/potential metaphysics.

          Either way: Aristotle and Aquinas offer more for your intelligence to contemplate and your heart to love than any of the moderns.

          • sidor

            What is the point in writing something that is not new? A profound and truthful idea expressed by someone else should be read but not re-written under someone else name. Or at least published with an appropriate reference.

          • ardenjm

            “Or at least published with an appropriate reference.”
            Nearly all of Aquinas’ arguments make reference to authors he either agrees or disagrees with. Certainly in the Summary of Theology – the whole point is to examine critically the inheritance of the wisdom of the ages.
            His insights, therefore, are adjustments, corrections, improvements or just contributions to a discussion that is wider than any single contributor.

            You are making a mistake here by requiring the model of artistic invention and creativity (no matter how ‘influenced’ it is by previous authors there must be a sui generis innovation or insight that is unique to the artist) with philosophical and theological engagement.

            As it happens, in the field of properly revealed theology: the givens of the Faith are in Revelation and it is receiving them in faith that is the most important thing of all: believing in Christ. The theologian’s task is seeking the fulness of the intelligibility that is found within Revelation and that requires painstaking linguistic, historical, archaeological as well as philosophical and theological work. Aquinas’ field was primarily theological, and secondarily philosophical. In using philosophical tools and in honing the Aristotelian tools that he was getting hold of for the first time in order to do the theology of Christian Faith he is doing something both new and old as befits his discipline. His exposition on the Trinitarian relations, for example, is absolutely novel but he would be the first to admit that other areas of his theological exposition were re-articulations albeit it with insights and nuances that were new.

            Other than that, you strike me as a pontificating bore convinced of his own rectitude. Is this an imaginative projection on my part or are you actually a self-satisfied, conceited blow-hard?

    • sidor

      Nietzsche wasn’t a philosopher: just an essay writer without any intelligible idea.

      • Sean L

        Mate if you think Nietzsche was principally an essay writer, or that he’s unintelligible, all I can suggest is that you try reading him – that should soon put you straight…

        • sidor

          I presume you did. Could you explain, in an intelligible form, a single new idea that you managed to discern in his literary exercises? Thanks in advance.

          • Sean L

            I’m not so sure that there are or *could* be entirely new ideas in philosophy. The philosopher Whitehead famously claimed that philosophy was “a series of footnotes to Plato.” For anything written since you could find an antecedent in Greek philosophy. *New* ideas are the domain of science. Certainly there are new *approaches* to the age old questions. One of which is the analysis of language itself, where Nietzsche has been hugely influential. Another area where Nietzsche could be said to be original in his approach is in his *bodily* interpretation of thought. As physical creatures what we think and speak must have its source in flesh and blood, organic matter. Thus Nietzsche considers ideas as physiological symptoms, bodily emanations. It’s on that basis that he recognises an identity between science and religion, regarding the man of science as the latest incarnation of “ascetic values”. From that point of view ideas are the outward form of the physical specimens who bring those ideas to life, and he argues that the man of science is of the same physical type as his priestly predecessor. The same “will to truth”, as he calls it, operating in both human specimens. He says much the same of morality. After all what does the body care for these categories! And that’s all we are ultimately, peculiarly complex configurations of matter. Whether that is a new idea I don’t know, and I can’t see how it matters one way or the other. We’re bound to ponder the same questions as those who came before us. And those questions are bound to remain the same in essence, however their form might alter and evolve. As Wittgenstein put it, ” When all questions of science have been answered, the problems of life remain untouched.”

          • Andy C

            That was very cogently put, but I suspect is a sanitized best guess as to what the mustachioed maniac was actually on about.

  • Michael H Kenyon

    Existentialism? Pshaw. In my mid-80s Russell Group post-grad days, we lauded Wittgenstein (early, not late). Pseuds dressed like “Oxfam Orwells”. I was differently pseud: somewhere between a post-punk and a hippie. That phase passed, thankfully. The onanists moved onto Foucault (“F All”, more like), the phonies to Derrida, and the mad for DeLeuze. As a group, the philosobores had very little secs, smoked too much cannabis, were politically stuck in 1968, and were a neurotic bunch best avoided. I wish I’d known that then, when they seemed cool and interesting. It pleases me greatly that none of the savants who proudly had “political arguments” and argued black is white (and you were a fascist for disagreeing) have achieved anything, if Google searches of them are to be believed. But I’m glad to have been immersed in the ideas so I can knock them down, and can now smell BS at 100 yards.

    • sidor

      I wonder if you are familiar with this:

      If not, enjoy.

      • Michael H Kenyon

        A fine work. Roger Scruton’s is also excellent.

        • sidor

          The French left are definitely pagan, but paganism transcends the political boundaries. It is a fundamental aspect of the Latin civilisation. For whatever reason, the Romans had a strong allergy to any kind of metaphysics, which explains their problem with the Jews and the earlý Christians.

        • Sean L

          Yeah the Scruton is absolutely brilliant, so well written and argued. It’s an updated version of Thinkers of the New Left from the 80s, a collection of articles that originally appeared in his Salisbury Review magazine. A book you want everyone to read. But I could say that of any number of Scruton’s books. No one writing about politics and culture today can touch him.

  • sidor

    Existentialism is a perfect formulation of the basic principles of paganism. No surprise that it emerged in France where it called “Atheism”. And no surprise that it was shared by Heidegger, considering his role in Hitler’s ideology.

  • Walfgang Unkmadeus

    Existentialism wrongly assumes human beings have free will

    • Sean L

      Well, Nietzsche called it a “necessary illusion” enshrined in our grammar, which posits a doer behind the deed: we can’t conceive of ourselves other than being the authors of our own acts. Sartre said we’re “condemned to be free” – pretty much the same thought. It may be *wrong*, absurd even, from a neutral scientific standpoint but such a standpoint isn’t available to us other than in the realm of pure theory.

    • sidor

      It is not a conjecture: it is a conclusion following from the main conjecture, that the Universe is in a state of ergodic equilibrium. That is the essence of paganism.

      • Walfgang Unkmadeus

        You again with the paganism, christ …

        • sidor

          I like to use an adequate terminology. Does this upsets you? Or you missed the point? Free will is a pagan idea inconsistent with the concept of transcendental God.

  • Terence Hale

    Works of philosophy dancing on the stage of time asking the same questions only to give new questions. Why do people do what they do, a simple question that remains unanswered. Heidegger seems to have answered why I am here to do what I do but not why I do what I do. From the perspective of our civilization Aristotle started to ball rolling initiating a cascade of copy-cats filling libraries but basic questions such as why do I do what I do remain unanswered.

    • pobjoy

      Why do people do what they do, a simple question that remains unanswered.

      Might it be that the answer is obvious, but also hard to admit? That could be the explanation, if experience is designed as a moral testbed, and not so many feel that they pass the test.

  • MikeF

    Ultimately 1968 in Paris was just a series of non-evenements but I imagine they might have seemed exciting in the Sheffield of the early 1980s.

  • kentgeordie

    Not that much to it really. It just means you make your being by what you do, rather than doing what your being makes you. It’s true, up to a point, as is the opposite viewpoint.
    Simone was a terrible woman. Sartre at least wrote one decent novel (L’Âge de Raison) and one decent play (Les Mains Sales). Camus shows us in L’Étranger what life is really like without God: it degenerates into mayhem, murder and madness.
    All in all, existentialism makes a pretty good case for abandoning the vanity and folly of atheism.

    • pobjoy

      Camus shows us in L’Étranger what life is really like without God: it degenerates into mayhem, murder and madness.

      How far is that a meet description of human aggregations, in every place and time?

      • kentgeordie

        Up to a point. But most of us, most of the time, individually and collectively, don’t sink as low as Meursault.
        Most of the intelligentsia of the western world would lay no claim to spiritual values, while relying on Christianity’s moral code other than when it interferes with their appetites.
        Meursault is the only person I know who doesn’t. He has no conscience, no sense of right and wrong, no morality. He is the embodiment of godlessness, and it’s not a pretty picture.

        • pobjoy

          Up to a point.

          In the last century, over 100 million people died as a result of warfare, many of them at the hands of theists. In the previous century, there were massacres and wars, too, including civil wars, and the aggregate mortality rate was probably limited only by technology so limited that even a few guerillas today have more potential killing power than whole armies did then. That was in an almost entirely theistic world. So when was the point at which ‘life with God’ kicked in, and life became safe for humans? How could an amoral ‘Meursault’ do worse?

          • kentgeordie

            “How could an amoral ‘Meursault’ do worse?”
            Meursault is radically amoral, and demonstrates convincingly in his relationships, with his mother, with Marie, with the nameless Arab girl he abuses, with the nameless Arab boy he murders, that his life could hardly be a greater mess.
            How could he do better? By acknowledging the voice of the heart and of tradition, that our lives are shot through with love and purpose.

          • pobjoy

            Joseph Goebbels, erstwhile would-be priest, would not have put it any better.

  • Camus Society

    “It’s worth remembering that the first generation of French
    existentialists included Camus, one of the greatest geniuses of the
    French novel.”

    Camus was not an existentialist. His “Myth of Sisyphus” was written against the existentialist position. He was not one of the greatest geniuses of the French novel either. L’Étranger and La Chute were not novels (although worthy of genius) and La Peste, although an enormously popular bestseller is not one of the greatest French novels. He wanted Le Premier homme to be his first great novel but unfortunately he was killed before finishing it.

  • Morseman

    An amusing essay by Mr Hensher, but wasn’t it supposed to be a book review?