Home Bookend - Where reading meets review At The Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being & Apricot Cocktails – Sarah Bakewell

At The Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being & Apricot Cocktails – Sarah Bakewell

by Venky

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In the early and middle half of the 20th Century, Paris found itself in the grip of a unique ferment. A Bohemian Group, paying tribute to a salacious existence, gallivanted between Parisian Cafes, and jazz concerts (when not hitting the dive bars), debated amongst themselves on seemingly abstruse concepts such as Being, Life and Nothingness and overall, making a philosophy of their very existence. A few of them even adopted a distinctive style that carved them out from the rest of their fellow humanity, black turtlenecks to wear and the works of the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger to wear the reader down. In the process, they also left behind a phenomenal body of work that still provokes, enriches, and pervades thinking across the globe.

Sarah Bakewell found herself enraptured by a reading of Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea, when she was all of sixteen years old. This captivation finds complete expression in her fantastic book that traces the origin of existential philosophy. The compelling attribute of Bakewell’s book lies in the exquisite juxtaposition of philosophy and history. The philosophical bit is tempered and its historical counterpart, rivetingly embellished. In the year 1932, three philosophers sat imbibing the house specialty, ‘apricot cocktails’ in the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue de Montparnasse in Paris. Jean Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir and Raymond Aron were engrossed in discussing a new realm of thought “phenomenology” that placed emphasis on examining the seemingly mundane elements of everyday life, “the things themselves”. Raymond Aron, who had just returned from Berlin after being exposed to the phenomenological thinking of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, innocuously remarked, “If you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!

The spontaneous exclamation by Raymond Aron triggered an insatiable curiosity in Sartre who soon found himself in Berlin to understand more about phenomenology. Pioneered by Edmund Husserl and immortalized by his once protégé and later bête noire, Heidegger, phenomenology was taking Germany by storm. Sartre and De Beauvoir would go on to become the high priest and priestess of “existentialism.” Thinking and writing in the same era that saw a phalanx of cerebral philosophers such as Albert Camus, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers and Hannah Arendt, Sartre went on to achieve superstardom. Following a lecture in 1945, Time magazine reported, “Philosopher Sartre. Women swooned.” He would even go on to reject a Nobel Prize for Literature in the 1964.  

Bakewell highlights in splendid fashion the differences between Heidegger and Sartre. Even though the duo met only once, the solitary meeting turned out be more than a mere dampener. On the other hand, Sartre and De Beauvoir remained partners for a whopping half a century, and more. While each of them had their own affairs, they were in consensus when it came to preserving their long term and indelible partnership. De Beauvoir’s magnum opus, The Second Sex marked a colossal achievement in the annals of existential literature.

The main protagonists in Bakewell’s excellent book are Heidegger and Sartre. Occupying an enviable status as a revered philosopher in his halcyon days, Heidegger spent the later years of his life as one of the most reviled personalities of his breed. This was primarily due to his open Nazi affiliations over which the philosopher showed no explicit remorse even after the end of the Second World War. Appointed in 1933 to the post of rector of Freiburg University, Heidegger not only had no qualms in accepting this position, but he also firmly convinced himself that his action was firmly informed by his philosophical belief.

Sartre comes across as a personality of conflicting emotions and attributes. Selfish and pugnacious on one hand, he is also the epitome of magnanimity on the other. Generous to a fault when it came to both monetary and intellectual assistance, Sartre firmly believed in viewing every situation from the perspective and “eyes of the least favoured”, a conviction that led to frequent changing of stance and understandable committing of mistakes.  

My personal favourite amongst the stellar ensemble of philosophers is the affable, unruffled, and amicable, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty was concerned with the way human beings were shaped by structures and forces outside themselves. However, for the fiery Simone De Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty’s generosity and genial countenance were unmissable traits of bourgeois hypocrisy. An allegation which I would refute vehemently and vigorously.

Bakewell has done an astounding job in enrapturing the learned and the rustic alike with her superb work. While taking care in ensuring that her readers don’t get bogged down by the formidable weight of obscure philosophical musings, she inculcates in them a fervour and an element of curiosity to dive deep into the world of an eclectic band of philosophers who even today continue to exert strong influences from their storied graves. At the Existential Café – An author in vintage form!

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Suchita September 21, 2023 - 2:33 pm

The title of the book enticed me to the review and now the review has enticed me to read the book.

Venky September 21, 2023 - 7:10 pm

I assure you, you won’t regret the choice! Best wishes!


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