Fêtes and Furies

Sarah Bakewell’s previous book, published six years ago, told the story of two lives: the one Michel de Montaigne lived in sixteenth-century France, and the one that became “the long party” attended by everyone who read him over the years after his death. The party was an intimate affair because Montaigne often seemed to know us better than we know ourselves, and certainly expressed many of our thoughts better than we do. Bakewell’s new book, At the Existentialist Café, has the same double motion. It recounts the lives of the writers and philosophers who hung out at that literal or metaphorical bar and traces the meanings and repercussions of what they wrote and said. But the mood of the gathering is different. The café gets quite crowded at times, while the subsequent partygoers, even though there were many of them, have tended to show up singly, with a more isolated mind-set. The world outside the café seems darker and more uncertain than Montaigne’s world, too.

Can this be right? What could be darker than Montaigne’s time of massacres and religious wars? Nothing, but that time is safely screened by distance, and if Montaigne’s calm and flexible intelligence seems close to us when we think of our private lives, it becomes a sort of monstrosity if we consider large-scale historical events that he experienced. When Bakewell wants to show us how “shocking” Montaigne’s serenity can be, she quotes his sentence “I doubt if I can decently admit at what little cost to the repose and tranquility of my life I have passed more than half of it amid the ruin of my country.” We know, of course, that neither Sartre nor Beauvoir could have said anything of the kind; but Heidegger might have, if he had ever made any meaningful comment on his Nazi years. And that would have been far worse than shocking. The speculation provokes two thoughts closely connected to the spirit of At the Existentialist Café. One is that Montaigne was not an accomplice in his country’s ruin; he simply lived through it. The other is that the very ideas of “repose and tranquility,” in or out of a violent public history, seem not to belong at all to the twentieth century. One of the reasons why Montaigne can teach us “how to live” is that he lived so far away.

Bakewell thinks, quite rightly, that the existentialists themselves seem to have receded into a kind of distance:

We can still find a nostalgic romance in the black-and-white images of the pipe-puffing Sartre at his café table, the turbanned Beauvoir, of the brooding Camus with his collar turned up. But they will never again look as raw and dangerous as they used to.

But we may not have moved on as far as we think, and we shouldn’t confuse historical time with fashion. “Who cares about freedom, bad faith, and authenticity today?” Bakewell quotes Jean Baudrillard as saying. “Today” was 1999. He didn’t (necessarily) mean we shouldn’t care, only that the terms had lost their significance. Still, we might wonder whether we don’t now worry more about those old ideas than we did seventeen years ago. That’s what our new, unstable distance from the past is like, and this is the world Bakewell explores. “Perhaps,” she says, “we need the existentialists more than we thought.” She shows us very carefully, though, that their lessons are oblique and conflicted and hard to grasp. They are not as companionable as Montaigne.

Existentialism, as Sartre propounded it, was all about choice, the sense that we have to “decide to live.” “He offered,” Bakewell says, “a philosophy designed for a species that had just scared the hell out of itself, but that might finally feel ready to grow up and take responsibility.” In her own case, Bakewell tells us, “Sartre had taught me to drop out, an underrated and sometimes useful response to the world. On the other hand, he also made me want to study philosophy.”

Her account of existentialism, “the story of a whole European century,” begins, appropriately, in a bar, the Bec-de-Gaz in Montparnasse, where Raymond Aron is telling Sartre and Beauvoir about phenomenology, which he has heard about in Berlin. The time is 1932–33, so the players are quite young: born in 1905, 1905, and 1908, respectively. They got excited about a philosophy that seemed to get rid of categories and abstractions, and Sartre spent the next year in Berlin finding out about it. Bakewell’s narrative, meanwhile, goes to the University of Freiburg, phenomenology’s headquarters, where Edmund Husserl, the inventor of the approach, had arrived in 1916. Heidegger began to work with him in 1918, although by 1927, when he published Being and Time, he was turning phenomenology into something else, a full-scale attack on philosophy itself, even if it was, as Hannah Arendt said much later, an attack that held philosophy “in honor,” undoing it by the best philosophical means. Bakewell’s story takes us to a “terrifying and darkly thrilling” lecture Heidegger gave in 1929, recalls Husserl’s suspicion that his protégé may have become “a monstrous progeny,” and shows us Heidegger becoming rector of the university (which entailed joining the Nazi party), only to resign after a year.

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre at the Porte d’Orléans fairground, Paris, 1929.
Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre at the Porte d’Orléans fairground, Paris, 1929. Jazz Editions/Gamma

It’s impossible to say briefly (or maybe even at length) what is so haunting about Heidegger’s thinking, but his translation of some famous lines in Sophocles gives us a clue. The lines have been translated as “Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man,” and “Many things are formidable, and none more formidable than man!” Heidegger renders the adjective (deinos) as unheimlich, and while I’m baffled by Heidegger’s talk of Being, I do know what it means to think of humankind as uncanny—or creepy or weird.

Bakewell’s tale returns to Paris, where Sartre and Beauvoir write their first novels and we get the backstory of their lives so far. Maurice Merleau-Ponty enters the scene, more of a phenomenologist than either of them, but distressingly polite and bourgeois. “Oh, how untormented he was!” Beauvoir wrote. “His tranquility offended me.” She had no such problems with Sartre, which no doubt accounts for the longevity of their partnership. Near the end of the book, Bakewell says that if she “had to choose an intellectual hero in this story, it would be Merleau-Ponty, the happy philosopher of things as they are.” This is a nice afterthought, but Bakewell has already chosen differently. Her heroes are Sartre, Beauvoir, and Heidegger, with all their complications, and she is at her best not when she is trying to judge them but when she evokes them in all their extravagant, restless authority. The great presence is Sartre, “a blazing, garrulous figure”; the great writer (and the person who probably had the most fun) is Beauvoir; and the great mystery is Heidegger, whom Bakewell, like most people who devote any serious time to his work, can’t place or diminish.

The story continues through World War II and the occupation of France, the time when, as Beauvoir wrote, “history would take hold of them all and never again let them go.” Sartre reads Being and Time—an experience much more satisfying than his later meeting with the author—and writes a work of philosophy that adapts its title: Being and Nothingness (1943). Camus appears, becomes friends with our heroes, who then fall out with him. A chapter takes us briefly to postwar Germany, and it is there that Bakewell provocatively tells us what she likes about Heidegger’s writing. Of a Greek temple he says that it “holds its ground against the storm raging above it and . . . makes the storm itself manifest in its violence. . . . The temple’s firm towering makes visible the invisible space of air.” We could be forgiven for seeing something of the mood of The Triumph of the Will in this picture, and Bakewell admits that someone else may “find this boring or even odious.” But I like her espousal of “Heidegger’s idea that a human architectural construction can make even the air show itself differently.” She celebrates real thinking wherever she finds it.

She has some good discussions of the politics of the postwar period, too, occasionally seeking to be a little too reasonable but mostly reconstructing complex debates with notable sympathy. There is an account of an argument between Sartre and Merleau-Ponty that dramatizes and stands for many of the difficulties of being an authentic, free, and vocal person in hard times. The two men are trying to work out the political posture of Les Temps modernes, the journal they edit together. What are they going to say about the Korean War? Merleau-Ponty, in Bakewell’s words, “had come to feel they should not fire off instant opinions on situations they did not understand.” Sartre thought silence was worse than no response, but Merleau-Ponty said, “Brute force will decide the outcome. Why speak to what has no ears?” It’s hard not to feel Merleau-Ponty is right—why talk when you don’t know what you’re talking about, especially when the people you want to influence aren’t listening? But then it’s hard, too, not to admire Sartre’s urge to speak out—what’s the point of a journal that doesn’t say anything? Fortunately, we don’t have to judge this debate; it’s over and it’s not ours. But we may well have to decide, or have decided, similar questions for ourselves. As Bakewell says, the existentialists won’t tell us what to do, and they are not models to copy. But they do show us, again and again, what it means to make a decision, and why we shouldn’t pretend the process is easy when it’s not. Perhaps we need them more than we thought.

Michael Wood is the author, most recently, of Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much (New Harvest, 2015).