On At The Existentialist Café

I’ve been reading At The Existentialist Café a chapter at a time for a couple months now. It’s a weird way to read a book but, you know, things get in the way when you’re writing a dissertation. I barreled through the last third or so over the past week, and it solidified some feelings that I’ve had through reading the entire thing.

The book is, broadly, about the existentialist movement that bloomed in France during the early 20th century. There are some fellow travelers and some precursors (Husserl gets a lot of time), but the core of the book is the story of Sartre and de Beauvoir. However, bizarrely, the portraits of these people feel incomplete. There is a wax and wane relationship in the book between telling a good story and functioning and being an intellectual biography. A person looking for the former is going to find some great sections and then others bogged down in the minutiae of constantly shifting philosophies; someone looking for the latter is going to see a lot of slippages in the philosophies of the central figures for the sake of brevity.

And at the end of things, I was left wondering what this book is.

It’s a question of audience, I think. The book has the research load of an academic book, but it is aimed at the people who read the figures mentioned in this book in college and want to know a little more about them. If you know the names of Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Heidegger, Husserl, Jaspers, and Merleau-Ponty (all of whom get space on the cover), but you don’t know all that much about them, then you are the assumed audience of this book.

This makes the politics of the book strange. Bakewell expends an immense amount of energy making sure that we know that the existentialists who supported the Soviet project (then Mao, then Pol Pot) were absolute jackasses who made a huge mistake in their own time. The version of the French relationship to communism and Marxism that is presented in the book is shockingly simplified to the point of looking like something you might hear in a low-level class in a business school. Here, for example, is the summary of how “communists” thought about morality:

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 lose the possibility of a real revolution. [272]

Sartre gets valorized for breaking with this tradition, but that two-sentence gloss is the kind of succinct description that the political opinions other than those of the book’s protagonists get. And, you know, the relation between the public intellectual and communism is so important in postwar France that it might be important to give a systemic reading of these things rather than to focus on them through the lens of single individuals and their responses.

I don’t envy anyone trying to cut this knot in writing a book because knowing when and where and how to summarize is impossible work, but you can feel certain kinds of claims seeping through here.

I couldn’t shake the feeling when reading that the audience question and the ideology question was the same. In the final chapter of the book, the most personal for sure, Bakewell runs through all the things she learned from the mass amount of research she did writing the book. And this sticks with me from the ending:

Heidegger intoned that one must think, but Sartre actually thought. Heidegger had his big Kehre – his ‘turn’ – bur Sartre turned and turned and turned again. He was always thinking ‘against himself’, as he once said, and he followed Husserl’s phenomenological command by exploring whatever topic seemed most difficult at the time. [322]

And then this a few pages later:

This ‘bloom’ of experience and communication lies at the heart of the human mystery: it is what makes possible the living, conscious, embodied beings that we are. It also happens to be the subject to which phenomenologists and existentialists devoted most of their research. They set out to detect and capture the quality of experience as we live it rather than according to the frameworks suggested by traditional philosophy, psychology, Marxism, Hegelianism, structuralism, or any of the other -isms and disciplines that explain our lives away. [325]

To me, this is the most reductive takeway from this period of French thought. The idea that all of those “-isms” are not responsive and constantly shifting with changing times just does not seem right to me, especially in the case of Marxism, which went through several radical transformations during the mid-20th century, especially in an Althusserian France.

The summation of the existentialist and phenomenological frameworks here feels almost like an evocation of a pure libertarianism of the mind, as if these thinkers were totally unhinged from the pull of the history of philosophy and the other ideas of their day. And I think it feeds back into that audience question — this is a book that ends with an appeal to the contemporary neoliberal mindset of sampling, borrowing, and “take it or leave it” political commitments. The book implicitly casts these figures as mobile and ever-malleable, sometimes for good causes and other times for bad, and that is seen as their value in the history of ideas.

In At The Existentialist Café, a longform commitment to the political or philosophical program is seen as a liability that makes one passe and indefensible, and I can’t help but read that as its own kind of political program.

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