Sarah Bakewell’s At The Existentialist Cafe Blends History, Biography and Philosophy


Ex Cafe_jacket layout_08Exist. Existence. Existentialism. Questions and interpretations of these central themes weave through Sarah Bakewell’s excellent non-fiction book At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails. A book that will appeal to readers for its exploration of existentialism, its biographical details, and its interpretation of how historical events affected 20th-century philosophers. As Bakewell writes, “I want to approach the lives through the ideas, and the ideas through the lives, because I think philosophy becomes more interesting when it is cast into the form of a real life.”

Jean-Paul Sartre is the central figure. His life and the evolution of his thinking are featured throughout. But the supporting cast is large: Simone de Beauvoir, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Albert Camus, and many others.

Before discussing Bakewell’s book more fully, let’s step back for a few minutes and consider the purpose of philosophy. For thousands of years, human beings have contemplated time and existence. “What is time?” they asked. “What is the meaning of the future? Why do I exist? How do I know that other human beings are not figments of my imagination? Was man created to fulfil a purpose by God or by nature? What is good and what is evil? Are the goals of human action equally valid and if not, what takes precedence and under what circumstances?”

Unlike empirical sciences or realms governed by mathematics, such questions cannot be answered by observation or calculation. At least, not yet. If we travel back in time, we can find matters such as astronomy that were considered questions of philosophy until scientists and other thinkers developed the empirical knowledge to answer relevant questions. Today we would consider philosophies proposed in those long ago times quaint and amusing.

According to The Purpose of Philosophy, published by Princeton University Press, “The goal of philosophy is always the same, to assist men to understand themselves and thus operate in the open, and not wildly, in the dark.” It seems we cannot live without seeking to describe and explain the universe to ourselves.

author photo by Tundi Eugenia Haulik

author photo by Tundi Eugenia Haulik

Sarah Bakewell reveals Sartre as the central figure in existentialism. He developed a slogan “which for him defined existentialism: Existence precedes Essence.” Bakewell explains the slogan in everyday language: “You might think you have defined me by some label, but you are wrong, for I am always a work in progress. I create myself constantly through action … I am my own freedom: no more, no less.” A few paragraphs later she augments the explanation with Sartre’s own words: “There is no traced-out path to lead man to his salvation; he must constantly invent his own path. But, to invent it, he is free, responsible, without excuse, and every hope lies within him.” Sartre argues “I am nothing, therefore I am free.” Essentially, Bakewell explains, “I am nothing beyond what I decide to be.”

Bakewell is enchanted with the existentialists for “they asked big questions about what it means to live “an authentic, fully human life” and tackled relevant, timely matters for their time—and ours—such as nuclear war, violence, oppression, freedom, and technology. Moreover, she asserts that the philosophies of the existentialists remain of interest, “not because they are right or wrong, but because they concern life, and because they take on the two biggest questions: what are we and what should we do?”

As Bakewell explains the genesis and development of existentialism, she dives into the upbringing and thinking of philosophers from other eras. In such fashion we learn of Soren Kierkegaard who “picked quarrels with his contemporaries, broke off personal relationships, and generally made difficulties out of everything” and Friedrich Nietzsche who explained that “the way to live is to throw ourselves, not into faith, but into our own lives, conducting them in affirmation of every moment, exactly as it is, without wishing that anything was different, and without harbouring peevish resentments against others or against our fate.”

How did existentialism begin? In the early 1930s, Sartre travelled to Germany to explore phenomenology. Bakewell takes the reader back to the thinkers behind that philosophy and so we meet Edmund Husserl one of its creators, who believed “we should not try to find out what the human mind is, as if it were some kind of substance. Instead, we should consider what it does, and how it grasps its experiences.” And then we meet Martin Heidegger, a man who became Husserl’s assistant and who explored questions like: “What can it mean to say that anything is?” And “why is there anything at all, rather than nothing?”

As Sartre’s life and thinking unfolds, Sarah Bakewell reveals the clashes that occurred between him and other critical thinkers of the time and the deep resentments that developed between philosophers such as Husserl and Heidegger. In the latter case, context was crucial as this was a time when Hitler’s power had emerged and Nazism was on the rise with Heidegger an enthusiastic supporter.

Sartre’s work—his essays, books, novels and plays—were a long exploration of freedom. As we follow his life and thinking, we also see his interpretation of and reaction to historical events. Central to Sartre’s life was his relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, a deep and clear thinking existentialist in her own right. In a chapter titled Life Studies, Bakewell discusses Beauvoir’s impactful book The Second Sex, saying “It can be considered the single most influential work ever to come out of the existentialist movement.” In it Beauvoir reveals the myths of femininity and her fundamental premise: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Through anecdotes and incidents, Bakewell’s characters come alive, as do the historical events affecting the lifetimes of those involved in the movement. She describes the roots of phenomenology, its evolution into existentialism and the application of existentialism during a time of world conflict (World War II), the post-war emergence of communism and the social movements of the 1960s such as desegregation, sexual freedom, and anti-war campaigns. And at every turn, we have Sartre thinking, interpreting, rearranging previous ideas and moving forward with his views. Bakewell explains that through researching and writing At The Existentialist Café, she came to respect and even like him, although she reserves her deepest admiration for Simone de Beauvoir.

Sarah Bakewell’s chatty style and straightforward language cut through the deep complexities of philosophical thinking. Moreover, she weaves personal experience and bits of amusing commentary and asides to create a more intimate experience. The manner in which she blends history, biography, and philosophy together is admirable.


About the contributor: M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, Lies Told in Silence, is set in World War I France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.


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