At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails

Sarah Bakewell

Other Press

Just after the Nazi takeover, in spring 1933, (Hannah Arendt) had been arrested…Her apartment was searched; both she and her mother were locked up briefly, then released. They fled, without stopping to arrange travel documents. They crossed to Czechoslovakia (then still safe) by a method that sounds almost too fabulous to be true: a sympathetic German family on the border had a house with its front door in Germany and its back door in Czechoslovakia. The family would invite people for dinner, then let them leave through the back door at night.

                       from  At the Existentialist Cafe


Philosophy for the early morning hours

Okay, so you slept through Philosophy 101 in college; or more likely, being nineteen, you were daydreaming about the weekend and its beddable possibilities. When you now think about “philosophy” (which, granted, you probably don’t) what comes to mind is dry, abstract ideas far removed from life and living and bed-based pursuits.

But if you are a person who wonders at times—maybe lying awake in the early morning hours, unable to sleep—what your life has been about, whether it mattered, whether it was the life you wanted to live, you might like to spend some time with Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café.

For her, “Philosophy is neither a pure intellectual pursuit nor a collection of cheap self-help tricks, but a discipline for flourishing and living a fully human, responsible life.”

Bakewell is the author of the 2010 best selling How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. In How to Live, she pondered this most basic human question by looking at the way it played out in Montaigne’s life and through his essays.

She does this again by focusing on the lives and ideas of that group of people in the twentieth century we call the Existentialists: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone Beauvoir, Albert Camus, as well as others less familiar.

Although they drew from the nineteenth century “proto-existentialists,” Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, their ideas were born and nurtured more from the ravaged remains of civilization following the first and second World Wars. Many of the old social, religious and political institutions had become casualties of those wars, and the Existentialists saw the opportunity to create a new world by people taking responsibility for their own personal lives and freedom.

Existentialism isn’t one coherent, consistent system of thought, not like, say, Kant’s epistemology or Hegel’s dialectic (I know, I’m suppressing a yawn, too), but rather a vibrant collection of sometimes clashing ideas. At the core, however, are the ideas of living an authentic life through exercising one’s personal freedom and accepting one’s personal responsibility.

As in How To Live, Bakewell has a talent for explaining complex and abstract ideas in everyday language, using everyday examples—though even she seems challenged to put Heidegger’s abstruse thoughts in everyday language, and you may wish to practice your skimming skills through those chapters.

Amid their messy love affairs, on-again, off-again friendships, and intense intellectual feuds, the Existentialists brought forth ideas that helped shape much of the second half of the twentieth century. Most notably was Beauvoir’s 1949 classic, The Second Sex  (“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”—she is shaped by social mores to play the role of woman, with all its non-biological limitations.)

Bakewell calls it “the single most influential work ever to come out of the existentialist movement.” The book not only became the intellectual foundation for the rise of feminism in Europe and the United States, but also deeply influenced the anti-colonial liberation movements following World War II, as well as the American civil rights movements, and the youth-charged idealism of the 1960s and 70s.

But behind the ideas remain the very human lives that produced them. As Bakewell shows, being a philosopher does not protect one from getting swept up in the political passions of the day. While many German intellectuals were either deriding or dismissing Hitler and his growing popularity, Heidegger was embracing National Socialism and became its advocate, much to the disbelief and despair of his friend Karl Jaspers and former Jewish student and lover, Hannah Arendt. Sartre and Beauvoir continued to be apologists for Stalin’s Soviet Union, long after Camus and others recognized that it was closer to Orwell’s vision of the soul-less totalitarian state than a workers’ paradise.

Bakewell’s book may not quiet those dark and disturbing existential questions as you lie awake in the early morning hours, but she will reassure you that you are not alone in facing them. Plus, the chapters on Heidegger’s “Being” and Dasein will probably help put you back to sleep.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (April 15-May 14, 2016.) Reprinted with permission.