Lives of the Philosophers

The postwar thinkers who stripped the world of preconceptions

French writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in Paris, circa 1955 (René Saint Paul/RDA)
French writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in Paris, circa 1955 (René Saint Paul/RDA)


At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails With Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others by Sarah Bakewell; Other Press, 448 pp., $25

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” says Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a troubled dropout struggling with questions of responsibility, to his best friend. Even by the Elizabethan era, it seems, a discipline that had begun in classical times as a practical method for discerning how best to live life had devolved into something increasingly hermetic. Wind the clock forward, to the late 19th century, and philosophy had become an exclusively academic profession, focused on seemingly arcane questions of aesthetics, epistemology, and ethics.

The 20th century, improbably, changed all that. The Great War, the sweeping away of imperial dynasties, waves of technological revolutions, a worldwide economic collapse, the rise of global totalitarianism, World War II, the atom bomb, the Cold War—all these events destroyed cultural certainties and introduced bewilderment and anxiety. And it was philosophy—as a means of understanding who we are, why the world is as it is, what we ought to do—that came to the rescue.

Or at least that’s the message of At the Existentialist Café, the sprightly, elegant, occasionally unsatisfying new book by Sarah Bakewell, author of the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award–winning How to Live, or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. It was the existentialists, among them Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and their cousins and precursors the phenomenologists, led by the seminal Czech thinker Edmund Husserl, who abandoned preconceptions to look at things—all things—exactly as they are. In doing so, they showed us that although “there is no traced-out path to lead man to his salvation,” as Sartre would put it, this absence of models frees us to invent ourselves, and our world, every day. Such thinking transformed the post–World War II era, says Bakewell, opening dialogue about race, gender, and exploitation; and although “the story of existentialism is [that] … of a whole European century,” it’s also the story of the individuals who “inhabited their historical and personal world, as they inhabited their ideas.”

Taking her cue from Iris Murdoch, the philosopher-novelist who wrote the first book-length study of Sartre, Bakewell announces in her first chapter that she wants to tell this story by combining philosophical exegesis and biography: to “look in through the windows of a philosophy”—existentialism and phenomenology—“and see how people occupy it.” She begins her tale promisingly, with three philosophers walking into a bar on the rue du Montparnasse in Paris: the elegant, well-born Beauvoir; “her boyfriend, Jean-Paul Sartre, a round-shouldered twenty-seven-year-old with downturned grouper lips, a dented complexion, prominent ears, and eyes that pointed in different directions”; and “Sartre’s debonair old school friend Raymond Aron.” (Bakewell has a gift for vivid thumbnail sketches.) Aron describes to the others a new way of thinking, fashionable in Berlin, called phenomenology. “If you are a phenomenologist,” he says, “you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it.” And Sartre—and Bakewell—are off and running to Germany, where after a lightning flashback to discuss proto-existentialists Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, the author introduces us to Husserl, his student and surrogate son Martin Heidegger (“shy, tiny, black-eyed, with a pinched little mouth … [and] a mysterious power over others”), Heidegger’s student and sometime lover Hannah Arendt, his rival Ernst Cassirer, and his friend Karl Jaspers. Then it’s back to France, to focus on Sartre and Beauvoir, their charming and urbane comrade Maurice Merleau-Ponty, their protégé and frenemy Albert Camus, and a host of others, from the jazz existentialist Boris Vian to the American novelist (and one-time candidate for mayor of New York on an “existentialist” ticket) Norman Mailer—all of whom are limned in a series of deft portraits and sparkling anecdotes enlivened by apposite illustrations studded through the text.

Unfortunately, the interconnected narrative promised by Bakewell’s titular metaphor only intermittently materializes. At the Existentialist Café often reads more like a series of loosely linked stories about vaguely connected people. Even where a narrative arc seems implicit, as in the varying ways her subjects responded to the challenges of their century—the widowed (and Jewish) Malvine Husserl trying to smuggle her late husband’s papers out of Nazi Germany, Heidegger’s postwar breakdown and philosophical reorientation, or Sartre’s rupture with both Camus and Merleau-Ponty over his stubborn allegiance to Soviet communism—Bakewell tends to favor a more episodic structure. Discursiveness served Bakewell charmingly in How to Live, where her 20 essayistic chapters functioned as “twenty attempts at an answer” to the question—how to live?—posed by her single subject, Michel de Montaigne. It seems less effective when dealing with a cast of 79.

In addition, the windowpanes of Bakewell’s Murdochian nonfiction novel occasionally fog up with lengthy explications of philosophical constructs like Zuhandenheit (readiness-to-hand), Dasein and Mitsein (being and being-with), proprioception, and the like, which she explicates and then reexplicates as if she were afraid she hadn’t made things clear the first time—a penchant that manages to confound rather than clarify. One is reminded of Gertrude Stein’s description of “a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.”

Bakewell herself seems to sense the problem, without fully grasping the solution. “When I first read Sartre and Heidegger, I didn’t think the details of a philosopher’s personality or biography were important,” she says in her concluding chapter.  “I intoxicated myself with concepts, without taking account of their relationship to events and to all the odd data of their inventors’ lives. Never mind lives; ideas were the thing.

“Thirty years later, I have come to the opposite conclusion.”

On the evidence of At the Existentialist Café, she is still struggling to make this change. But like her description of Heidegger’s postwar philosophical readjustment, or Kehre (turn), which she compares to the action of “a man in a field who gradually becomes aware of the movement of the breeze in the wheat behind him, and turns to listen,” her effort is often beautiful to witness.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Amanda Vaill is the author, most recently, of  Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War. She is working on a biography of sisters Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton and Angelica Schuyler Church.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up