From Sartre to Dostoevsky

Anthony Hatzimoysis identitifes the leading lights of existentialist philosophy

We have seen some of the main features of the existentialist approach to human life. Our discussion has not been limited to any one particular philosopher, and has tried instead to identify some guiding thoughts of existentialist authors. But who exactly are those authors?

Which, among the several philosophers who reflected on the nature and meaning of human existence, count as existentialists? There are several, and sometimes conflicting, answers to that question. Historians may disagree over the attribution of the existentialist title to various figures. However, there is a core group of important philosophers who should be included on anyone’s books. So, here is my short list of existentialist writers.

To begin with, there are thinkers who made a strong claim on the paternity of the idea of grounding philosophical inquiry on the analysis of human existence (Karl Jaspers in Germany, and Gabriel Marcel in France). Then there are philosophers who came to endorse ‘existentialism’ as a title for their own theory, often using the term in order to describe, clarify, or qualify the nature of their approach to important philosophical topics (Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and, of course, Jean-Paul Sartre).

Furthermore, there are a number of thinkers who engaged with existentialism in developing their distinctive approach to the experience of artworks, the meaning of life, the limits of political legitimacy, and the philosophical understanding of history (Rom Ingarten, Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, and Ortega y Gasset).

Then we have philosophers whose work betrays an ambivalent stance towards existentialism – an ambivalence that has been intellectually most fertile, since it offers both some of the most eloquent expressions of the existentialist thinking, as well as a critical statement against certain forms of existentialism for obscuring our view of the Other (as alleged by Emanuel Levinas against Cartesian Existentialists), or for silencing the voice of Being by reducing serious ontological inquiry about what there really is into some sort of philosophical curiosity about human beings (as it was argued by Martin Heidegger against Humanist Existentialists).

There are, though, three authors of the 19th century whose writing - its focus, vocabulary, and narrative structure, perhaps more than what their texts actually argued for - made their work the main point of reference for a number of issues that would become the staple of existentialist discourse: Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

A quick glance through the above list should warn us that it would be unwise to characterise a view as ‘existentialist’ without clarifying which existentialist philosopher one has in mind. The list includes from devoted Christians (Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Marcel) to ardent atheists (Nietzsche, and Sartre), from committed liberals (such as Jaspers), and radical political thinkers (such as Arendt), to notorious opponents of political progress (such as Heidegger), and from literary curators of immanence (Camus), to supporters of the transcendent dimension of human life (Levinas).

If there is one view that they all share, it is that the concrete reality of each individual being is richer in content and prior in importance to any theoretical construction about what a human being in the abstract supposedly is – in the terms of a famous motto: ‘existence precedes essence’.

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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution