Part biography of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and other revolutionary thinkers, part cultural analysis and part personal reflection, Sarah Bakewell’s new book At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails (Chatto & Windus, £16.99) is a highly readable account of one of the twentieth century’s major intellectual movements.
Is “existence precedes essence” the best way of briefly summing up existentialism or is there a better one?
Well, this formulation by Sartre is certainly brief, but it takes a longer explanation to make sense of it. Loosely, it translates as: first I find myself here, thrown into the world; then I choose the kind of being that I’m going to become, depending on what I do. I don’t just conform to some pre-defined blueprint for a human being, in the way that (say) a coffeepot conforms to a pre-defined coffeepot design. It’s an important definition of existentialism because it emphasises my freedom. I might be thrown into a bad situation, but I’m still free to choose what to make of that situation.
Given that the roots of existentialism could be traced back to Kierkegaard and 19th century Denmark, what was it abut 1930s Paris that allowed the movement to flourish?
It didn’t flourish very widely in the 1930s, but took off in the mid-1940s, towards the end of the Occupation and the war. It definitely caught a moment, at a time of great uncertainty and great possibility. The war had destroyed so much; the authority of traditional institutions of state and church had been undermined. Young people were looking for new and non-conformist principles on which to run their lives, as well as wondering how to reckon with the recent past.
To what extent did Sartre and de Beauvoir follow the existentialist maxim to maximise freedom in their personal lives? And did that leave room for a personal code of morality?
They made a point of living out their principles, both politically and personally. This famously included the decision to have an open relationship, based on their notion of freedom. They wanted the close partnership, but not to sign a marriage contract based on traditional social norms. Instead they worked out their own agreement and their own moral code: for example they made it a condition that they must always be honest with each other about what they got up to. (For the most part, they stuck to this, though there were a few lapses.) As for the “bourgeois” morality they had both grown up with, they saw that as a morality of constraint, dishonesty and hypocrisy.
How did existentialism influence post-war politics?
It had a huge influence on the growing counterculture, and on liberation movements. Simone de Beauvoir’s existentialist feminist work of 1949, The Second Sex, was one of the first to have a great social impact, leading many women to change their lives drastically. Existentialism also helped to inspire anti-colonial and anti-racist campaigners. Martin Luther King Jr read books of existentialist philosophy while he was working out his political thought – whether they directly influenced him in a huge way is harder to tell. The anti-colonialist activist Frantz Fanon certainly deployed existentialist ideas, and he had Sartre write a foreword for his book The Wretched of the Earth – which had a wide-ranging impact around the world.
Existentialism – scary, liberating or both?
Both, definitely! They go together, don’t they?
Society is much more free now than in the 1930s. Does existentialism still have a role or is it, as Baudrillard reckoned, a historical curiosity?
Is Baudrillard a historical curiosity? In the end, that’s what we all become. But existentialism has a lasting appeal, because it concerns individual human lives and experiences, and the way we cope with decision-making. It deals with very basic questions about what we are as human beings, and about how we exercise freedom (freedom of speech, of political self-determination, and of personal life choices) – all very current issues today.
Existentialists valued authenticity more than anything. In a digital age of multiple selves is authenticity easier or harder to achieve?
The digital age gives us more creative and wide-ranging ways of being inauthentic, as we play different roles online and interact in so many diverse social realms. Whether that makes it harder to be authentic offline is not clear – because the existentialists would say that the underlying difficulty of being authentic is simply part of being human. It’s probably impossible to be authentic 24 hours a day; a certain amount of self-deception and pretence makes life liveable. The question is how much of this we acknowledge to ourselves, and how much we allow it to take us over.
What would Sartre and de Beauvoir have made of Stephen Hawking’s claim in 2011 that science had killed off philosophy?
They would have considered it a category error, since philosophy for them dealt above all with problems of existence – that is, human existence, as experienced by human beings. We can investigate human behaviour scientifically, but this never quite touches how we experience our lives from the inside.