Review by Thomas L. Lynn, Jr.
Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café – Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails (New York: Other Press, 2016) 488pp.
Among the many virtues of Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café – Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails, perhaps the preeminent is its conveyance of what Jean-Paul Sartre designated as the central commitments of the movement she so wonderfully surveys. For near the outset of his 1945/6 L’Existentailisme est un humanisme, Sartre tell us, “…we can begin by saying that existentialism is a doctrine that does render human life possible; a doctrine, also, which affirms that every truth and every action imply both an environment and a human subjectivity.” Perhaps at first blush, this might strike one as a rather arid or dessicate statement, one unduly abstract in flavour. Yet Bakewell’s book quickly dispels liability to this impression through its exploration of how existentialism emerges from the intersection of so many very concrete circumstances and very real people. That is to say, Bakewell both grasps and demonstrates the chiasm at the movement’s root. That is, if it is to remain meaningful, it must remain entwined with the world itself. Certainly this comes through in her description of Merleau-Ponty’s articulation of that notion:
…This was the idea of consciousness as a ‘chiasm’. The word ‘chiasm’ or ‘chiasmus’ from the Greek letter chi, written 𝛘, and it denotes exactly that crossed intertwining of two nerves or ligaments. In language, it is the rhetorical device in which one phrase is countered by another inverting the same words…The interwoven figures calls to mind two hands grasping each other, or the way a woollen thread loops back to grip itself in a knitting stitch. As Merleau-Ponty put it: ‘the hold is held’.
Of course, Merleau-Ponty’s understanding is in tension with that of Sartre’s and Heidegger’s…and indeed consensus beyond this basic holding to the held, or abiding in life’s situation is a vainly sought grail among these individuals that Bakewell’s account engages along the way. Crucially, along with her lucid recapitulations of the ideas that they convey to us, she sketches how they emerge from their histories, and history.
Thus we see, for instance, how Edmund Husserl’s affection for a young Heidegger was in part informed by the loss of one of his sons, Wolfgang, in the First World War, or how the relationship between Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir was to ramify so strongly for them both through their lives’ courses. The impact of events of geopolitical character is also sewn through the narrative skillfully, from the implication of Nazism, to the ideological tensions that would challenge and at moments riven friendships in the atmosphere of the Cold War: it is both an encouragement and a challenge to us to witness human beings struggling to embrace both freedom and responsibility in the face of situations so oft agonising. And indeed this is shown not only in the study of the most celebrated exponents of or participation in the emergence of existentialism, but also very poignantly with many of its less well known characters, such as Father Herman Van Breda who played a key role in the preserving Husserl’s Nachlass, or Colin Wilson and Iris Murdoch who aided in shepherding the tradition into the Anglo-spere. What is also deserving of remark is how effectively Bakewell conveys the rootedness of existentialism in phenomenology, that related movement whose consideration is found both at the outset and conclusion of At the Existentialist Café.
There are some minor points where I felt I differed from Bakewell’s readings. For instance, her reading of Camus’ The Rebel (L’Homme Revolté) she says, “Rebellion is a reigning in of tyranny. As rebels keep countering new tyrannies, a balance is created: a state of moderation that must be tirelessly renewed and maintained.” While it is the case that the rebel draws the line against tyranny, her suggestion that a balance is created implies that Camus is investing positively in a cyclical or ordered structure in history, some I felt in disagreement with, though these were minor points.
A more serious issue is Bakewell’s treatment of Communism and Marxism. In relation to Sartre’s engagement with those movements, we find this paragraph:
Sartre’s ‘eyes of the least favoured’ idea is as radical as Levinas’ Other-directed ethics, and more radical the Communism. Communists believe that only the party can decide what is right. To turn morality over to a mass of human eyes and personal perspectives is to invite chaos and loss the possibility of a real revolution. Sartre ignored the party line and revealed himself to be just as much of an old maverick as ever. He could not be a proper Marxist even when he was trying.
Unfortunately, the reductive treatment of Communism and Marxism found here recurs at other points in the text as well, surprisingly in the displays of subtlety and generosity which is the norm through the course of the book. The implication is that these notions admit to identification with, if not merely the problematic character of the Soviet or Maoist projects, at least a kind of violent dogmatism. This is simply an unwarranted move as the traditions of Communism and Marxism extend far beyond those narrow confines, both back in time, and continue to evolve at present Indeed, she notes Sartre’s own appreciation of this point via his gloss of his Critique of Dialectical Reason. Regarding that effort, she cites his remark, “The Critique is a Marxist work written against the Communists.” The article ‘the’ is salient, for it reflects that Sartre is speaking specifically of apologists for the USSR, and not Communists altogether. Other examples can be furnished as counterpoint to such a reduction, whether historically with those like Rosa Luxemburg, or Herbert Marcuse, or, more recently, those like Terry Eagleton, David Harvey, or Alain Badiou.
So said, I still commend Sarah Bakewell here as granting us a wonderful book in At the Existentialist Café. Another of the work’s strengths (and I’ve far from enumerated them all) is its highlighting of and description of Simone de Beauvoir. Certainly, I was moved by Bakewell’s reflection on de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. The passage is worth quoting at length:
For Beauvoir, the greatest inhibition for women comes from their acquired tendency to see themselves as ‘other’ rather than as a transcendent subject. Here she drew on a wartime reading of Hegel, who had analysed how rival consciousnesses wrestle for dominance, with one playing ‘master’ and the other ‘slave’. The master perceives everything from his own viewpoint, as is natural. But, bizarrely, so does the slave who ties herself in knots trying to visualise the world from the master’s point of view – an ‘alienated’ perspective. She even adopts his point of view on herself, casting herself as object and him as subject. This tormented structure eventually collapses when the slave wakes up to the fact that she has it all backwards, and that the whole relationship rests on here on the hard work that she is doing – on her labour. She rebels, and in doing she she becomes fully conscious at last.
This passage rewards our attention, drawing together as it does as several threads. For one, it throws into relief how the existentialist framings and engagement of subjectivity come to play in integral role in the emergence of crucial themes for feminism and other movements of liberation. But, more importantly, I feel that it helps the reader grasp in some new way the particular adversities which confront the subjectivity of women as they enter into the world: the structures of culture and language conspire to obscure their own freedom.
In conclusion, Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café – Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails is a splendid read…either as an entré for those not yet initiated to existentialism, or, as welcome reminder to those who may have lost touch with the exhilaration of freedom, being…and a phenomenological savouring of apricot cocktails.
Thomas Lynn is a thinker currently situated in Cincinnati. He is the host of Thinking Thomas, a channel dedicated to critical theory and an interview series with authors in theory and philosophy.