At the Existentialist Cafe – Sarah Bakewell

A fantastic, readable and brilliantly explained history of the radical ideas of French existentialists that have shaped so much of modern thought and social change.

This wonderful book is a history of the lives and ideas of the originators of existentialism: Satre, de Beauvoir, Heidegger, Merleau Ponty, Husserl, Camus. It’s traces the way their lives and ideas interact; or, especially, the way in which their ideas influence their and others’ lives.

From the early 1930s when they were founding their thinking, through the war, occupation and liberation of France, to the protests of 1968, Bakewell traces how their thought developed and how they put in into practice, both in artistically and academically, personally and politically.

She begins, after briefly introducing us to Satre and de Beauvoir, by talking at length about Husserl’s development of the philosophical practice of phenomenology, which so influenced Satre. The sense that the role of philosophy is to cut through the appearance of things, through the perspectives and ideologies that attach to things, and to describe the phenomena itself, in its essence, was she says, revolutionary. And it’s this sense of cutting through to the essence of what it is to be human, the being or ‘Daisen’ for Heidegger, that is central to existentialism, and it’s view that people are unencumbered by convention or history or ideology and are in fact radically free.

We get chapters on Heidegger, both because his philosophy was influential for existentialism, and because he is an interesting but flawed character because of his attraction to and refusal to denounce Nazism. And we get lots on Satre and de Beauvoir – their lives, their commitment to writing, their absolutely engagement in politics, and of course their massive influence. Bakewell is particularly good on why de Beauvoir’s Second Sex was such a revolutionary and important book for feminism and women’s liberation.

Bakewell, at a late point in the book, says she used to be naive and think what matters most in the world are ideas, that a focus on people’s lives is a distraction, but she has since come to see that people’s lives are the thing that matter. In fact, she is truly excellent at explaining the complex and highly abstract ideas of phenomenology and existentialism, and more than anything in this book she shows how lives and ideas interact.

Satre and de Beauvoir, for example, lived in ways considered quite shocking for their time – working constantly, an open relationship all their lives, childless, fervently committed to Soviet communism. Whether this radical freedom of their lives influenced their ideas or vice versa, who knows, but the connection of life and philosophy is clear.

And what’s more, Bakewell shows how their existentialist ideas were so influential in a period of social change – civil rights, student protests, anti war demonstrations, the Beat poets, sexual liberation, feminism… all of these movements were founded on ideas of personal freedom, of living consciously chosen and free lives, that were at the core of their existentialist philosophy.

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“a phenomenologist’s job is to describe. This is the activity that Husserl kept reminding his students to do. It meant stripping away distractions, habits, cliches 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.”

Sarah Bakewell describing phenomenology in The Existentialist Cafe

Books I’ll never write #4: desolation fiction

As humans become more and more enmeshed in protective layers of technology and welfare, of offices and comforts, it nevertheless appears that discontent remains a consistent – perhaps even a growing theme – of personal and political life.

It’s against this backdrop, arguably, that we are seeing the emergence of a genre of fiction that uses desolation as way to explore what, beneath and beyond the protective layers, it is to be a human.

Sometimes this is dystopian fiction, like the Hunger Games or the End of the World Running Club. Other times it’s a situation in which someone finds themselves alone or travelling in a vast expanse, like the Shepherd’s Hut or The Road.

The core of these and other books is that the protagonists are thrown back on themselves – their bodies, their brains, their survival skills – with no recourse to the armoury of stuff available to them in contemporary civilisation.

Apart from the sociologically interesting question about why people are writing and reading these kinds of stories now, there are other ways of looking at them too. One is by way of comparison with Agamben’s concept of ‘bare life’, the existence that is left in situations of war when everything else, most notably ideas of human rights, are removed. Another is in comparison to the existential freedom of Satre, where all that matters in the end is the ability of the human subject to choose that there is nothing but autonomy at the human core; everything else is contingent and inessential.

The book that I’ll ( probably) never write would explore how desolation fiction is a response to the world we find ourselves in, looking at both the sociological and the philosophical underpinnings.

“Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday. I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: Your mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Deep sympathy. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.”

Albert Camus’s great opening to The Outsider 

“But if you could not close a door behind you to take a shit in the city – even if it was just the door to a shared toilet – if this one, most essential freedom was taken from you, the freedom, that is, to withdraw from other people when necessity called, then all other freedoms were worthless. Then life had no more meaning. Then it would be better to be dead.”

Patrick Suskind, The Pigeon

The Pigeon – Patrick Suskind

This is a fine novella in the European existentialist tradition.

In just 77 pages we experience the identity crisis of Jonathan Noel – a French security guard who for three decades has lived in the same small apartment with the same job, and minimal interaction with or exploration of the outside world. Until, in his fifties, he encounters a pigeon in his apartment building – its eyes penetrating him, it’s excrement soiling the floor and its presence fundamentally unsettling his ordered world.

He had successfully managed to shut out the messiness and ambiguity of things outside of his experience but the pigeon appears and reveals the precariousness of his life – how he can’t control events, and how he could as easily have been a bum and, indeed, given the sameness of his life, it might have been more meaningful. 

There’s a great bit when he sees a bum eating sardines and bread, and drinking wine with abandon. And then, a little later, Jonathan goes and buys the same stuff and enjoys it with an intensity of pleasure he perhaps has never experienced before.

What the novella expresses brilliantly is the the unstable nature of our identities, of what we build our lives around, and how things could be so easily different.

The Vegetarian – Han Kang

Desperately beautiful and sad in equal part, The Vegetarian is a short and shocking meditation on what it is to suffer, what happens when you challenge convention and ultimately what it is to be human.

It tells the story of a woman who becomes vegetarian and, in part as a consequence of her choice of diet being rejected by her family and, in part because of a deep, destructive melancholy, gradually decides to eschew conventions like clothes and eating, in the end almost dying, in order to become plant-like.

The story is told in third person from three perspectives in the book’s three chapters: the woman’s husband, a conventional man who discards her once her behaviour becomes too extreme; her brother in law, a strange film maker who is obsessed with her and uses her madness to take advantage; and her sister who continues to care and worry for her when everyone else has gone.

We learn through the sister’s story  – and in a shocking earlier scene in which he hits her and forced her to eat meat at a family meal – that their father was abusive, with the woman taking the brunt of it, helping to explain the suppression of her personality up to the point of becoming vegetarian. But we also find the sister experiencing despair too, and reflecting that if she didn’t have a son and her sister to care for, perhaps she might let herself detach from the world too.

All this is written in a direct yet beautiful style – incredible, given this is a translation from Korean.

In this remarkable novel Han Kang channels the ideas of existentialism, of Deleuze, of Becket, successfully conveying the sense that humanity is not essential or absolute but tied down by conventions which can easily be loosened, revealing other ways of being that are both mad and natural at the same time.