At The Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell, Other Press, 439 pages, $25. If it were turned into a contest, I think the word “existential” – and all possible variants of it – would win hands down the title of the most improperly and pretentiously employed word of the past 100 years. Sarah Bakewell plops you right in the middle of the problem in her first paragraph: “It is sometimes said that existentialism is more of a mood than a philosophy, and that it can be traced back to anguished novelists of the nineteenth century and, beyond that, to Blaise Pascal, who was terrified of the silence of infinite spaces, and beyond that, to the soul-searing St. Augustine, and beyond that to the Old Testament’s weary Ecclesiastes and to Job, the man who dared to mention the game God was playing with him and was intimidated into submission. To anyone, in short, who has ever felt disgruntled, rebellious or alienated about anything.”
If you understand that the subtitle of Bakewell’s irresistible book is “Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails” you understand how racily she’s able to focus is more than a little startling considering that philosophy and philosophers are her subject. Which is exactly her book’s charismatic virtue.
Here’s how she begins “sometime” in 1932-33: Simone DeBeauvoir, “boyfriend” Jean-Paul Sartre (with “downturned grouper lips.....eyes that pointed in different directions”) and Sartre’s friend Raymond Aron were sitting in “the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue de Montparnasse in Paris and catching up on gossip and drinking the house special, Apricot Cocktails.”
Four hundred pages later, Husserl, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty, Camus, Brentano, Jasper, Arendt, Vian, Levinas, Weil and Genet all flow through the narrative with something that might almost be called breeziness. And that leads to the philosophy student’s adult conclusion that Merleau-Ponty should underlay her understandings about life and that “ideas are interesting but people are vastly more so. That is why, among the existentialist works the one I am least likely to tire of is Beauvoir’s autobiography, with its portrait of human complexity and of the world’s ever-changing substance.” The work, then, she clearly learned from. – Jeff Simon