A facility at writing about serious thinking with a deceptively light touch was the signal feature of Sarah Bakewell’s 2011 book, How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. The same quality graces this latest work, in which she subjects existentialist philosophers to scrutiny both as thinkers and as human beings marked by their moment in history. While existentialism is less a distinct school of philosophy than a kind of extended family—one that includes thinkers as varied as Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Eugene Ionesco, and Ralph Ellison—almost all of those at the center of this book lived and worked in Paris during the mid-twentieth century. Such Parisian café habitués as Raymond Aron, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and, to a lesser extent, Maurice Merleau-Ponty belong to this inner group. As the story unfolds, others come and go: Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, the Catholic theologian Gabriel Marcel, and many more. But it is about the French core that we learn most.

The existentialists Bakewell discusses are largely unread today outside the ranks of professional philosophers and college students. To most of us, existentialism means, if anything, a film-noirish mix of Gauloises cigarettes, Nazi occupiers, and a whole lot of coffee drunk in a whole lot of cafés. The one in the group who continues to be read widely is Camus—his novels, at least, if not his almost impenetrable philosophical essay The Rebel. I would wager that for every modern American who has read Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, there are a thousand who have finished Camus’s novel The Plague. If we look a little more widely at some of the great figures whom Bakewell rightly invokes as influences on the existentialists, like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, we come face-to-face with even more formidably difficult writings. Perhaps only Franz Kafka from this group continues to be attractive to the non-specialist reader—once again, a novelist.

Bakewell clearly thinks we need to know more about these philosophers and their ideas. Existentialism’s call to live authentic lives in challenging times may be out of fashion, but she considers it all the more important for the very fact of our ethical amnesia. So via the conceit of a “synchronic café,” where all the players can come and go, sipping on their apricot cocktails (really?), she interweaves for our benefit the lives and circumstances of many of the major players. This is attractive writing that draws the reader in, but not all of it is easy. Unflinchingly, Bakewell launches into an account of Husserlian phenomenology, then follows it with a first look at Heidegger. The pace picks up with the war years, including the dramatic story of how Husserl’s papers were smuggled to safety in the last moments before WWII was declared, and how Sartre fared as a soldier and prisoner-of-war, and as a philosopher in the midst of Nazi Paris. If there is one notable omission in the book, it is any consideration of how Sartre and the rest negotiated life amid occupation and the temptation to collaborate—a temptation to which a number of French intellectuals gave in.

Subsequent chapters examine de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex; Heidegger’s shift to a more mystical thinking and his flirtation (or worse) with Nazism; and Sartre’s “unreadable” work on Flaubert and his later turn to more philosophical and political writings, which led to his estrangement from Camus, Aron, and Merleau-Ponty. The phenomenologist philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty comes across as quite the most personable individual of the group, and Bakewell provides an excellent account of his difficult but important thought on embodiment, deftly mingling it with anecdotes about his skill as a dancer and his (largely ineffective) flirtatiousness. In her closing chapters Bakewell turns to writers who toyed with elements of existentialism but are not usually labeled as such, like the African-American trio of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison, and Colin Wilson and Iris Murdoch in Britain.

Bakewell’s mix of anecdote and exposition, with a nod to history and a dash of autobiography, makes her writing attractive to the general reader, even (or perhaps especially) when she writes about thinkers she views as “hopelessly flawed.” One thing that rapidly becomes apparent to anyone who reads the history of philosophy—or the lives of artists and writers—is that no correlation whatsoever exists between creative thought and personal virtue. If Heidegger is the proof of that, there are others in the existentialist café who are far from being shining examples of human goodness—or even, surprisingly enough, of authenticity. But as Bakewell comments, while they may not be exemplary, they are interesting.

In her lovely final chapter she admits to having come to respect and even to like Sartre. Bakewell acknowledges that “of course, he was monstrous,” but at the same time she makes clear that he possessed the character Heidegger lacked; for all his flaws, he is “good” and Heidegger is not. But the writer Bakewell will continue to love is Simone de Beauvoir, whose autobiographies she cherishes. Bakewell confesses that as a young person she used to think that ideas were what mattered, but by now she has come to the conclusion that “ideas are important, but people are vastly more so.” And sure enough, while her treatment of the existentialists’ often challenging thought is fair and admirably clear, it is the people themselves, sipping their apricot cocktails (really?), whom we will remember from this fascinating and warmly human book.

Published in the May 6, 2016 issue: View Contents

Paul Lakeland is the Director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University and a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

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