In the early 70’s, just after we opened The Bookshelf, I did have a seat at the existentialist café, though it was from my reading chair. Now, 45 years later, Sarah Bakewell’s evocative, passionate and footnoted book brings back so many memories. The cover of Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, passages from Armies in the Night, black turtle necks and cigarettes, and, most profoundly, my confusion about the phrase “existence precedes essence.”
Bakewell begins by asserting that studying philosophy could “make you more resilient, able to rise above circumstances and better equipped to manage fear, grief and disappointment.” Then she proceeds to invigorate 20th century European philosophy, breathing life into an amazing cast of characters: Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Simone Weil, Karl Jaspers, just to name a dazzling few.
Of course many were morally flawed human beings. Heidegger was a Nazi collaborator, de Beauvoir had affairs with students, Sartre was certainly a bully and also had what many might call an excessive sex life. But what they all shared was an intense examination of life, often beginning with their own. Sartre often remarked that to be in good faith means not making excuses for yourself. He and many others in this group continually analysed, argued, changed their minds, stopped talking to one another, reconciled, marched together, published, smoked and drank a lot and generally devoted their life to trying to understand the world and how it turns.
Their world view was a product of the violent 20th century and the inescapable political ideologies that were its companion. The world we live in today is both the same and different. De Beauvoir describes how all intellectuals “relaxed in their own guffaws about a buffoon named Hitler”. Sound familiar? But we also have urgent problems like climate change and the ogre of social media and its impact on privacy and mental health. Just today it is reported that Silicon Valley faces reckoning as backlash grows against big tech. Maybe some of these companies need an existentialist or two on their boards of directors -- that is if they can find them.