Paris, 1933. Three contemporaries meet over apricot cocktails at the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue Montparnasse-- and ignite a movement, creating an entirely new philosophical approach inspired by themes of radical freedom, authentic being, and political activism: Existentialism. Interweaving biography and philosophy, Bakewell provides an investigation into what the existentialists have to offer us today, at a moment when we are once again confronting the major questions of freedom, global responsibility, and human authenticity in a fractious and technology-driven world.
Sarah Bakewell performs an impressive and engrossing feat of condensing the lives and works of a few dozen Twentieth Century philosophers and sometime fiction writers and playwrights into a relatively slim 400+ pages. It is a personalized story as well, as she often mentions when she herself discovered these same writers in her own reading life and shares comments on favourite passages and books.
Despite their often paradoxical defenses of "odious regimes" (Heidegger - Nazism & Sartre - Communism) the human love of freedom of choice and individualism still shines through in these life histories. The stories are especially humanized through the often quirky anecdotes that Bakewell has collected e.g. once Sartre and Beauvoir saw a sea elephant (ie. sea lion) being fed in a zoo. It had its snout in the air as fish were being poured down its gullet by the zookeeper. Later in life, if Sartre ever felt glum all Beauvoir had to do was remind him of that story, Sartre would stick his nose up in the air and all would be right again with the world.
Aside from a crash course in Existentialist writings, there is trivia aplenty about writers such as Jean Genet and Albert Camus and many others. Did you know that E.M. Forster wrote a 1909 short story "The Machine Stops" that basically predicted the internet and tablets/smart phones? I'd never heard of it before until reading about it here.
All this and also the greatest valedictory passage ever. this side of Roy Batty ("I've seen things you people wouldn't believe, etc...") in the original "Blade Runner," and written by Simone de Beauvoir even 23 years before her passing. Too long to quote here, it is top of page 313 in the Vintage Canada edition, towards the end of Chapter 13.
Don't let the $10 words like Phenomenology and Existentialism intimidate you. Think of them as simply "experience without preconception" and "freedom of choice" and relax and learn. You are in the hands of a master communicator/educator with Sarah Bakewell.
Existentialism is a philosophy of life and how life should be lived. As an illustration of that, the author expounds the philosophy of existentialism through the biography of most of the philosophers, thinkers and writers most closely associated with existentialism paying special attention to Jean Paul Sartre and Simone Beauvoir. She also personalizes her narrative through vignettes of her encounters with the authors whom she discusses. I call it a great beach read because it is written in a light and breezy style that still manages to communicate the essentials of the philosophy.
Sarah Bakewell writes with a charming lightness of touch, and has the happy knack of conveying interesting though occasionally complex ideas with a charming simplicity and clarity. Her book is, essentially, a potted history of existentialist thought with some illuminating biographies of many of the leading proponents. Her principal focus is on Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, though it extends to some of their contacts and counterparts, with interesting sections about fellow philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Bakewell recounts how Sartre and de Beauvoir were drinking in the Bec-de-Gaz bar in Paris in early 1933 with Raymond Aron, a school friend of de Beauvoir. He had recently returned from Berlin where he had been studying phenomenology, a new branch of philosophy of which the leading proponent was Husserl. Sartre and de Beauvoir were so impressed by what Aron told them that they immediately decided that they had to go to Berlin and discover more for themselves. This was, of course, an unpropitious time to be going to Berlin, with Hitler’s National Socialist party have just been ‘jobbed into power’. This was to prove more than a little significant in the life of Martin Heidegger, who would become one of the leading existentialists of his time.
Bakewell’s depiction of Sartre and de Beauvoir is intriguing. Though in their own long term relationship, they both took other lovers with a remarkable frequency, but always swore to keep the other informed of their various sexual exchanges. They were both prolific writers, seemingly capable of producing books, journal articles and semi-political tracts almost at will. The world of philosophy, or at least the community of philosophers, through which they moved was not always a sociable environment, and disputes about specifics could lead to deep, irreparable rifts. Bakewell captures this marvellously, though she never lets the detail of the various fallings out obscure her narrative flow.
Informative and entertaining, without ever succumbing to the risk of dumbing down, this is a simply dazzling book.
The book starts with a thorough exploration of phenomenology (which is tough enough for me) and the personalities and histories of the men (mostly) whose work it was. Heidegger towers in this group, of course, but the course of his life is quite problematic. He championed and then discarded several students who were, perhaps, a challenge to him, was too involved in the Nazi mission and madness for anyone to forgive, including Hannah Arendt, his student and lover. But his impressive work in the field ricocheted through the intellectual world of Europe, and his seminal work Being and Time let to Sartre's own masterpiece Being and Nothingness
Along the way, the author provides many biographical details, such as Sartre's experience in a prisoner-of-war camp, and how it changed him. He and Simone de Beauvior were intellectually inseparable (not identical, however), however they played out their sexually independent lives. Sartre also enticed and discarded students and compatriots, and at times the story feels like gossip about crotchetey old intellectuals arguing over the meaning of 'is'. de Beauvior eventually turned their philosophical frame on how women were raised, taught, inculcated with that double vision of themselves as 'other' to men, and that of course ricocheted in its own way to our time. (The author mentions that the first translations into English were awful, and bowderized, but there is a newer one I might try to read.)
The author is especially fond of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whom she finds calm, pleasant, and more realistic than other French phenomenologists (if I understood her correctly!). And she relates the impact of existentialist though on Iris Murdoch, another author I don't know enough about.
All in all, a really compelling history of the philosophers, mostly French and German, whose ideas so influenced Western thought in the last century.
Whether you already think you know Existentialism and Phenomenology or think you do not care, this is an excellent and readable work. Part philosophical history, part multiple biographies, part personal and ideational autobiography, part history, part sociology, this is a Cafe worth sitting in and experiencing for a good while.