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21 September 2016

Philosophy, the Sartre blend: uncovering the birth of existentialism

Want to know why 50,000 people showed up to pay their respects at the funeral of Jean-Paul Sartre? Three new books may provide the answer.

By Ray Monk

On YouTube there is a three-minute clip of the funeral of Jean-Paul Sartre. The funeral took place on Saturday 19 April 1980 and the television coverage from which the clip is taken follows the journey of the hearse from the hospital where Sartre died to Montparnasse Cemetery, where he was to be buried – a distance of about three kilometres. Along the way, the hearse moves through a staggering number of people. The commentator says that there are 50,000 mourners in total, 30,000 on the streets leading to the cemetery and another 20,000 at the cemetery itself. When the camera pans out, you can see how extraordinarily packed the streets are; when it homes in on some of the faces, you notice that many of the mourners are young, in their early twenties. If you did not know whose funeral it was, you would guess a famous actor or actress, a rock star, or some such popular public figure as Diana, Princess of Wales or Winston Churchill. It would never occur to you that what you were seeing was the public reaction to the death of a philosopher.

It is often remarked that this shows the difference between French and British culture, because it is unimaginable that so many people in this country would be so deeply affected by the death of an intellectual. But, in fact, it is a pretty unusual event anywhere and at any time. It is said that when Kant died, the whole of Königsberg turned out to pay its respects, and there were big crowds at Voltaire’s funeral in Paris, too. In Russia, the funerals of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy attracted huge numbers of mourners. However, these occasions of mass public grief on the death of a writer or intellectual are few and far between. What is shown by the crowds that lined the Boulevard du Montparnasse to catch a glimpse of Sartre’s hearse is not something about France, but something about Sartre in his own right, something that demands explanation. Why were so many people drawn to him? Why did he matter to so many?

For Sarah Bakewell, the answer lies in the peculiar appeal, and the timeliness, of the philosophy that he espoused: existentialism. In her wonderfully engaging and readable book At the Existentialist Café, she traces the history of the existentialist movement through the lives, personalities and thinking of its leading members. In addition to Sartre, these included his lover Simone de Beauvoir, his friends Albert Camus and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and his main philosophical influences, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger.

The book is a joy to read. Bakewell shows enormous skill in bringing to life not only the leading figures, but also the times and places in which they lived, their ideas and their works. There is an awful lot of research packed into it which extends far beyond the literary and philosophical writings of her chief protagonists. She deftly places those writings in their political, social and historical context, often by considering the films, books, fashions and trends that formed their cultural backdrop. In many ways, hers is a study not of a particular philosophical movement, but of the ideas that shaped the art, literature and politics of the 20th century. Yet all this knowledge is carried ­remarkably lightly, and the book does not, for one moment, get bogged down or become a chore to read.

Another feature of At the Existentialist Café that makes it enjoyable is the author’s occasional mention of her personal engagement with the work of her subjects. The jacket blurb tells us that “Sarah Bakewell was a teenage existentialist, having been swept off her feet by reading Sartre’s Nausea, aged 16”, and in the book she tells us that she has watched the online clip of his funeral “a dozen or more times, peering into the low-definition images of the many faces, wondering what existentialism and Jean-Paul Sartre meant to each of them”. One feels that, had Bakewell been in Paris at the time (which was just a year after her teenage introduction to Sartre’s work) she would have been one of those mourners, because, she writes, “Sartre’s books changed my life, too.”

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When she started reading Nausea, she “bonded at once with its gloomy outsider protagonist Antoine Roquentin” and “was intrigued to learn that this story was Sartre’s way of communicating a philosophy called ‘existentialism’”. This led to her taking a degree in philosophy at the University of Essex and then to an unfinished PhD thesis on Heidegger. Along the way, “I managed to spend my days and evenings more or less as the existentialists had in their ­cafés: reading, writing, drinking, falling in and out of love, making friends, and talking about ideas. I loved everything about it, and thought life would always be one big existentialist café.”

Bakewell was aware, of course, that by the time she was studying the great exis-tentialist writers seriously and identifying intellectually with them, existentialism generally, and Sartre especially, had fallen out of fashion. In the English-speaking countries the entire existentialist tradition was largely ignored by mainstream analytic philosophers, who preferred rigorous thinking about logic and language to wide-ranging, but occasionally woolly, reflections on being, freedom, politics and lived experience. Meanwhile, on the Continent, existentialism was overtaken, first by structuralism, with its emphasis on societal constructions rather than individual thoughts, feelings and dilemmas, and then by post-structuralism, postmodernism and deconstruction, which, in various ways, attempted to make sense of the shifting and at times bewildering ways in which our speech and writing manages, or fails, to convey meaning.

Bakewell clearly feels that in the process of these developments, the life went out of Western philosophical thought. And so, having revisited the works that excited her two decades ago, she wants to retrieve that life: to bring back into being, as it were, the existentialist café she once dreamed of inhabiting.

Actually, she wants to put the life back into the philosophy in two different ways. First, she wants to convey the excitement of existentialist thought, portraying it (unlike the comparatively desiccated schools of thinking that succeeded it) as an attempt to make sense, not of structures and signifiers, but of life. Second, she seeks to introduce existentialism through the lives of its leading exponents. “When I first read Sartre and Heidegger,” she writes, “I didn’t think the details of a philosopher’s personality or biography were important . . . Thirty years later, I have come to the opposite conclusion.”

She begins with a pivotal moment in the lives of Sartre, de Beauvoir and their friend Raymond Aron. It was the Christmas/New Year period of 1932-33, and they were all in their twenties. They were sitting in the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue du Montparnasse in Paris, drinking the house speciality – apricot cocktails. Aron, who had been studying in Berlin, was telling the other two about a philosophy he had been learning about called phenomenology (“a word so long yet elegantly balanced”, Bakewell comments, “it can make a line of iambic trimester all by itself”). “You see,” Aron told them, “if you are a phenomenologist you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!”

On hearing this (or so de Beauvoir later recollected), Sartre turned pale and rushed to the nearest bookshop, demanding: “Give me everything you have on phenomenology, now!” The staff offered him a thesis by Emmanuel Levinas on the work on the founder of phenomenology, Husserl. That thesis was The Theory of Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology (1930), and Sartre began reading it on the street as soon as he got out of the shop. He then arranged to spend a year in Berlin, learning this new philosophy at first hand. When he returned, Bakewell writes, “he brought back a new blend: the methods of German phenomenology, mixed with ideas from the earlier Danish philosopher Søren Kierke­gaard and others, set off with the distinctively French seasoning of his own literary sensibility”. That blend was existentialism.

Bakewell ends her first chapter with a decent stab at answering the question: “What is existentialism anyway?” Acknowledging that it takes many forms, some mutually incompatible, she nevertheless commits herself to saying that it concerns itself with individual human existence, that it considers the defining characteristic of being human to be freedom, and that this entails assuming responsibility for everything we do, which brings with it an anxiety that is an inescapable fact of our existence, and, finally, that the purpose of existentialism is to enable us to understand ourselves better and thus to lead more authentic lives. Each of these italicised words denotes a crucial concept in the “blend” that Sartre made available, first in the cafés of Paris and then around the world.

It must be said that Bakewell’s attempt to trace the history of existentialism through the biographies of its leading thinkers gets off to a somewhat shaky start with her chapter on Husserl. One senses that she does not find his work congenial. She hardly quotes anything directly from Logical Investigations (1900-1901), the work in which Husserl introduces his notion of phenomenology, and she seems dependent on secondary sources. One cannot blame her for this. Logical Investigations is a huge book, full of difficult and subtle reasoning, made almost impenetrable by the obscurity of Husserl’s prose. Bertrand Russell, who tried to read it, is said to have described the experience as being “very much like trying to swallow a whale”.

Bakewell gives the impression that Husserl’s phenomenology can be illustrated by the attempt to describe the taste of coffee or the experience of listening to a moving piece of music. She even believes that it “is useful for talking about religious or mystical experiences”. All this is wide of the mark. Logical Investigations is first and foremost about understanding logical forms, and the kind of “intuition” with which Husserl is primarily concerned is what he calls “eidetic intuition”, which is to say, the kind that intuits not the taste of coffee, nor the emotions aroused by a piece of music, but an eidos, a form. It is perfectly possible, I think, that no one understands Husserl’s phenomenology, but certainly it is not possible to grasp it by reading Bakewell’s chapter on it.

When she discusses Martin Heidegger, Bakewell is on more secure ground. After all, she started, even if she did not finish, a doctoral dissertation on his work. I, on the other hand, find Heidegger completely unintelligible. Actually, as becomes increasingly apparent as the book goes on, Bakewell herself has no great love for Heidegger. She makes a decent attempt to summarise the main themes of his most important work, Being and Time (1927), showing how these reappeared in a different guise in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, published in 1943, but intellectually and personally she makes clear that she prefers Sartre. Heidegger she describes as lacking warmth, personality and moral courage, and she is understandably appalled by his anti-Semitism, his membership of the Nazi Party and his resolute refusal to acknowledge the wrongness of his complicity with Hitler’s regime. How this man became a hero of the avant-garde left in late-20th-century France is, for me, and, I think, for Bakewell, one of the great mysteries of intellectual history.

Bakewell is very good on Being and Nothingness, showing in particular how its notion of bad faith – living a life and accepting an identity imposed by society rather than created freely by oneself – was one that was peculiarly appropriate to the France of the Resistance and the self-examination and recriminations of the postwar period.

Apart from Sartre, the heroes of Bakewell’s account of existentialism are de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty, and she writes about both with enthusiasm and insight. She gives an especially enlightening appreciation of de Beauvoir’s masterpiece, The Second Sex, and saves her highest praise for Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. Sartre, de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty, clearly, are the three people with whom she would most like to share a table at the existentialist café.

Patrick Baert’s The Existentialist ­Moment: the Rise of Sartre as a Public Intellectual is much more tightly focused – indeed, even more so than its title indicates. It is concerned only with Sartre’s rise as a public intellectual in France during the years 1944 to 1947, and seeks to answer two very specific questions: why did Sartre’s rise happen at that time? And what was the particular appeal of existentialism? Baert offers answers by bringing to bear on these questions something called “positioning theory”. This is a fairly recently developed method of approaching questions in psychology, linguistics and sociology, associated primarily with the British philosopher Rom Harré, which seeks to understand our interactions with each other by looking not just at the content of what is said, but also at what is achieved, socially, by saying it. In his last chapter, Baert leaves Sartre behind in order to outline generally how this method might be used in the enterprise of “explaining intellectuals”.

I, for one, am not convinced that we need a single explanatory framework that we can bring to bear on the “explanation” of intellectuals; I don’t see why we cannot work case by case, looking at each individual’s ideas differently. Neither am I convinced that Baert’s own, very persuasive answers to his two questions derive their persuasiveness from this theory. He thinks that Sartre’s rise as a public intellectual happened in France in the immediate postwar period because the French, preoccupied as they were with trying to understand their own recent past and busy with recriminations against Nazi collaborators, were receptive both to existentialism, with its emphasis on personal responsibility, and to Sartre himself, who, as a member of the Resistance, had the moral authority to position himself as an authoritative intellectual leader. I think these points can be made and accepted without adopting any broad theory. Baert’s book has much to recommend it. It is very thoroughly researched and carefully written, but far too academic and too theoretical to recommend to the general public without reservation.

Gary Cox’s Existentialism and Excess: the Life and Times of Jean-Paul Sartre cannot be recommended wholeheartedly, either, but this time for a rather more straightforward reason: it is just not very good. It contains no original research, is far too dependent on previous biographies, and gives the impression of having been written in an indecent hurry.

If you want insight into the appeal of existentialism, if you want to know why 50,000 people would want to pay their final respects to Jean-Paul Sartre, my advice would be to read At the Existentialist Café.

Ray Monk is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southampton. His most recent book is “How to Read Wittgenstein” (Granta)

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell is published by Chatto & Windus (440pp, £16.99)

Existentialism and Excess: the Life and Times of Jean-Paul Sartre by Gary Cox is published by Bloomsbury Academic (352pp, £19.99)

The Existentialist Moment: the Rise of Sartre as a Public Intellectual by Patrick Baert is published by Polity Press (240pp, £55)

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This article appears in the 14 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation