By Sarah Bakewell

Chatto & Windus. 440 pages. £16.99. ISBN 978-070-1186-586

Reviewed by Jim Burns

What is existentialism?  “Some books about existentialism never try to answer this question, as it is hard to define. The key thinkers disagreed so much that, whatever you say, you are bound to misrepresent or exclude someone. Moreover, it is unclear who was an existentialist, and who was not. Sartre and Beauvoir were among the very few to accept the label, and even they were reluctant at first. Others refused it, often rightly. Some of the main thinkers in this book were phenomenologists but not existentialists at all (Husserl, Merleau-Ponty), or existentialists but not phenomenologists (Kierkegaard); some were neither (Camus), and some used to be one or both but then changed their minds (Levinas).”

I feel justified in using that excerpt from Sarah Bakewell’s entertaining book because it seems to me to sum up the situation with regard to the general understanding of what is meant when we hear or read the word “existentialism.” It’s too easy to dismiss it as just another of those “isms that foreigners, especially the French, like to throw around, and dangerously fall prey to in their worst forms (Fascism, Communism), but which we common-sense British rightly treat with suspicion. After all, we worked out some, at least, of what existentialism meant many years before any of the people Bakewell mentions were born.

In William Rowley and Thomas Middleton’s great play, The Changeling, first performed in 1622. Beatrice persuades a servant, De Flores, to murder a man she is supposed to marry but doesn’t want to, and promises him rich pickings for carrying out the deed. He does as she asks and then goes to claim his reward, but when offered money and jewels he scoffs and makes it clear what he wants. Beatrice goes all coy and innocent and talks of her virtue and modesty, to which De Flores says: “A woman dipped in blood and talk of modesty?” and follows up with “You are the deed’s creature.” Existentialism? Well, it appears to be if I take one of Bakewell’s definitions of it as accurate. She says that “I am whatever I choose to make of myself at every moment. I am free – and therefore I’m responsible for everything I do.” Beatrice may have had deep emotional and different reasons for her decision, but she was free to decide otherwise and has to live with the consequences of her actions.

I don’t want to quibble about whether or not Rowley or Middleton had hit on a key principle of existentialism almost four hundred years before Sartre or anyone else did. It’s obvious that ideas evolve over long periods, and it’s always possible to pick out examples from literature, or philosophy for that matter, to demonstrate how certain individuals were thinking along the same lines in previous years. Still, it does enable us to raise a very British eyebrow when great claims are made for things we’ve perhaps always taken for granted.

Sarah Bakewell provides a lively account of her own induction into existentialism when, in 1979, she bought a copy of Sartre’s Nausea, “a novel of the alienation of personality and the mystery of being,” with money given to her for her sixteenth birthday, and immediately identified with its “gloomy outsider protagonist.” My own acquaintance with existentialism, and I stress it was little more than that, happened in the 1950s when I came across a magazine article about people in Paris and London wearing black turtle-neck sweaters, talking about books and philosophy, and living it up in jazz clubs and cafes. It all seemed very glamorous, but I was then wearing a different kind of uniform and listening to the talk in the barrack-room about the local girls and how to raise enough money for a visit to the nearby German bar. I kept my yearnings for bohemia to myself. Was this an example of the “bad faith” Sartre talked about? There I was, pretending to be a soldier when all the time I really wanted to be a bohemian? Actually, I enjoyed going to the pub with my mates. And I had a German girlfriend. Nor did I dislike the army. After all, I had decided to  volunteer.

When I finally arrived in Paris in 1962 the existentialist moment had largely passed, at least in terms of existentialists being immediately identifiable by their dress, but Sartre and Beauvoir’s advocacy of engagement with the politics of the time was still relevant as the savage Algerian War got close its final stages. I could understand that, as my own interest in politics was always a factor in my thinking, but even so I doubt that I would ever have convincingly worn the uniform of sartorial existentialism. I couldn’t even look like a beatnik, and following the trail of writers like William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg was the main reason I was in Paris. I think those three year in khaki had persuaded me to only wear a uniform out of necessity in future. I never found Ginsberg, but I did track down Burroughs to a shabby little club on the Left Bank and listened to him read excerpts from Naked Lunch, then only available in its banned (in Britain) Olympia Press edition. I have seen the Beats described as “American existentialists,” but as Bakewell stresses that no-one has ever been able to agree on what existentialism is, it’s probably not worth arguing about whether they were or not.

Bakewell talks about the post-war mood of rebellion and dissatisfaction, with its lack of trust in established authorities like the government, the church, even major philosophers. Kierkegaard’s identification with the Nazis, and their enthusiasm for Nietzsche, probably caused many people to wonder if anything they wrote was worth taking heed of.  And she points out that when the existentialists appeared to offer something new (even if it had its roots in some of what Kierkegaard and Nietzsche had advocated) they were received with enthusiasm. True, much of that enthusiasm was soon translated into a taste for jazz clubs, usually with the bands playing traditional jazz and initially, at least, the jiving couples wearing check shirts rather than black turtle-neck sweaters. The check shirts she relates to the liking for most things American. It was the French who originally applied the term “film-noir” to the dark-toned films coming from Hollywood. They reflected the atmosphere of uncertainty that seemed to characterise the late-1940s. And Parisian intellectuals enjoyed tough-guy American writers like Horace McCoy and Dashiell Hammett. The bleakness and cynicism of something like They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? appealed to their fractured sensibilities. It was, in fact, a novel originally published in 1935 at the height of the Depression in America. Boris Vian, jazz trumpeter, writer, chronicler of the Left Bank scene, and associate of Sartre and Beauvoir, wrote a novel called I Spit on Your Graves which was very much in the style of late-1940s/early-1950s American pulp fiction.

Sartre and Beauvoir had seen the text of Heidegger’s lecture, “What is Metaphysics,” in 1931, but had not fully understood it. They were more impressed by his Being and Time, in which, in Bakewell’s summing up: “Practical care and concern are more primordial than reflection. Usefulness comes before contemplation, the ready to hand before the present-at-hand. Being-in-the-world and Being-with-others before Being-alone. We do not hover above the great rich tangle of the world, gazing down from on high. We are already in the world and involved in it – we are `thrown` here. And `throwness` must be our starting point.” This all sounded interesting, especially if one took “Being” to denote “thinking for oneself.” But Heidegger’s compliance with the anti-Jewish laws introduced by the Nazis tended to reduce the power of his words. Was he truly thinking for himself when he willingly fell into line with the demands of the new order? Perhaps he was and genuinely believed in what Hitler said. If that was the case it was worrying.  It was as if the philosophy and the life were two separate entities. Sartre perhaps summed him up when he said: “Heidegger has no character. There’s the truth of the matter.” And Bakewell adds: “It is as if there was something about everyday human life that the great philosopher of everydayness did not get.”

One of the more-attractive personalities in At The Existentialist Café is Edmund Husserl, proponent of phenomenology. Bakewell takes eight pages to tell us what that is, and says that a phenomenologists job is to describe: “It meant stripping away distractions, habits, clichés of thought, presumptions and received ideas in order to return our attention to what he called the `things themselves`. We must fix our beady gaze on them and capture them exactly as they appear rather than as we think they are supposed to be.” Which is reasonable, but I don’t think I ought to delve further into the subject. I was amused that Karl Jaspers admitted to Husserl that he didn’t know what phenomenology was, and when he got a reply speculated that Husserl didn’t either. Still, I couldn’t help warming to him when I read that, at a time when Heidegger “turned increasingly to the archaic, provincial and inward looking,” Husserl turned outwards and issued “a rousing call to the international scholarly community,” in which he implored them to “work together against the rise of irrationalism and mysticism, and against the cult of the merely local, in order to rescue the Enlightenment spirit of shared reason and free enquiry.” It’s a pity he’s not around now to speak out against all those who want to limit freedom of expression, even on university campuses.

It would be hard, too, not to like Albert Camus, whose The Rebel was a book I identified with more than anything by Sartre. It seemed to me that revolutions always turn sour, whereas the sort of rebellion that Camus analysed had its attractions. Rebellion can take various forms, and aristocrats, bohemians, anarchists, artists, dandies, surrealists, and others like them, can offer a myriad of ways to preserve one’s individuality in an absurd world. Bakewell says, “How do you live without sense? The answer offered by both Camus and Kierkegaard amounted to something like the motto in the British morale-boosting poster: Keep Calm and Carry On.” Bakewell’s analysis of what rebellion meant to Camus is worth quoting: “true rebellion does not mean reaching towards an ecstatic vision of a shining city on a hill. It means setting a limit on some very real present state of affairs that has become unacceptable……Rebellion is a reigning in of tyranny. As rebels keep encountering new tyrannies, a balance is created: a state of moderation that must be tirelessly renewed and maintained.” 

I suppose the post-1945 period is the one that most of us identify with existentialism, and inevitably it’s because of that popular notion of it being a kind of excuse to seem serious while having fun on the Left Bank in Paris. But Sartre and Beauvior, though photographed often enough in bars in St Germain-de-Pres with their friends, were actively engaged in politics. And they wrote copiously. Bakewell points to Sartre’s willingness to turn out an article for any cause he was involved with, and which weren’t necessarily all that good (think of his support for Maoism), as well as producing fiction plays, and philosophical work. As for Beauvoir, she will probably be remembered as the better and perhaps more-influential writer. Her book, The Second Sex, had a massive effect in terms of the feminist movement, and her novel, The Mandarins, is a vivid fictionalised account of the Paris of the postwar years.

Bakewell does shift her survey from Paris for a look at writers in Britain who were influenced by ideas of existentialism. Colin Wilson inevitably comes top of the list with The Outsider, the book that created something of a sensation when it was published in 1956, and was helped towards popularity by newspaper reports of its author sleeping rough on Hampstead Heath. Photos taken at the time show Wilson in a roll-neck sweater, albeit not a black one, and with an attractive moodiness about his features. His fame soon took a dive when the press, as it does, began to turn against him. Wilson took himself far too seriously for the British who like their intellectuals, insofar as they like them at all, to be bluff and down-to-earth. Ideally, they should go to the pub and declare their support for the local football team. And Wilson’s intellectual skills were challenged when mistakes in his book were held up to the light. Bakewell rightly, I think, points out that his picaresque novel, Adrift in Soho, was one of his better books.

Bakewell also draws attention to the American Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, a popular novel in its day, though not one I would have thought of as related to questions of existentialism. True, it can be seen as a kind of fictional parallel to a book like David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, which she refers to as “his study of modern alienation.” But we’re back to the question of how you define existentialism, and it may be that books like these do represent surface aspects of it. She’s on safer ground, I think, when she makes a passing reference to David Karp’s neglected One, a dystopian novel in which anyone displaying too many signs of individualism has to be “re-educated” so that he won’t upset other people. The process involves “a soothing, medicalised process,” rather than a violent or forced one. As Bakewell says, it’s “all the more terrifying for that.”  Likewise, she offers up some films of the 1950s for consideration, and I enjoyed her interesting, if brief, takes on The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Godzilla, and the way she relates them to Heidegger’s lecture, “The Question Concerning Technology.” In it he talked about the “monstrous” and “terrible” in man, and “the violation of the earth, and the stripping of resources.”

Bakewell has a nice, light touch, even when dealing with abstruse philosophical theories. And she has a sense of humour when she tells the story of the film director, John Huston, desperately trying to get Sartre to edit a script he’d written for a biography of Freud. The more Huston insisted on something shorter, the more Sartre wrote, until eventually he was replaced by a couple of professionals. Or there’s William Barrett’s comment that Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, published with almost 700 pages, was a good first draft for a book of 300 pages.  And anecdotes about philosophers falling out, with even a punch-up in a Paris street between Camus and Arthur Koestler. She also slyly suggests that the rapturous applause that greeted one famous philosopher’s long lecture may have been because he’d finally finished. It all inclines one to accept Bakewell’s observation that: “Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.”

Does existentialism have relevance today? It may well do as we are subject to vast amounts of surveillance and intrusions into our private lives, police powers are on the increase, and new technologies and the mass media incline us to greater levels of conformity. There have been earlier attempts to dismiss existentialism, and Bakewell refers to Jean Baudrillard saying, “Who cares about freedom, bad faith, and authenticity today?” But, as she points out, people behind the Iron Curtain very much did care and some of Sartre’s work was still read with interest in places like Poland and Czechoslovakia. Perhaps it’s time for us to have another look at certain of his books? 

I enjoyed At the Existentialist Café and its mixture of philosophy and personality. Sarah Bakewell knows how to achieve the right balance between explaining ideas and commenting on the people who dealt in them. There are ample notes for those who want to delve further into the theories or the lives, and a useful bibliography. I think I know a little more about what existentialism means, though I suspect that if I attempted to explain what my understanding amounted to I’d be immediately challenged by several others with different conceptions. But then, as Sarah Bakewell says at the beginning of her book, existentialism is “hard to define.”