Philip Hensher

‘Existentialism? I don’t know what it is’

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

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.

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