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Lead book review

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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