at the existentialist cafe -- 12/16/16

Today's selection -- from At The Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell. In 1933, a young Raymond Aron laid forth the ideas of Germany's phenomenologists to twenty-seven-year old Jean-Paul Sartre and twenty-five-year old Simone de Beauvoir at a Paris bar, and the seeds of a new philosophy -- existentialism -- had been planted. By 1945, Sartre had fully developed this existentialist philosophy, and had become famous as young people emerging from the devastation of World War II embraced his ideas:

"[Jean-Paul] Sartre's existentialism implies that it is possible to be authentic and free, as long as you keep up the effort. It is exhilarating to exactly the same degree that it's frightening, and for the same reasons. As Sartre summed it up in an interview ...:

There is no traced-out path to lead man to his salvation; he must constantly invent his own path. But, to invent it, he is free, responsible, without excuse, and every hope lies within him.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at Balzac Memorial

"It's a bracing thought, and was an attractive one in 1945, when estab­lished social and political institutions had been undermined by the war. In France and elsewhere, many had good reason to forget the recent past and its moral compromises and horrors, in order to focus on new beginnings. But there were deeper reasons to seek renewal. Sartre's audience heard his message at a time when much of Europe lay in ruins, news of Nazi death camps had emerged, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been destroyed by atom bombs. The war had made people realise that they and their fellow humans were capable of departing entirely from civilised norms; no wonder the idea of a fixed human nature seemed questionable. Whatever new world was going to arise out of the old one, it would probably need to be built without reliable guidance from sources of authority such as politi­cians, religious leaders, and even philosophers -- the old kind of phi­losophers, a new kind of philosopher, ready to wade in and perfectly suited to the task.

"Sartre's big question in the mid-1940s was: given that we are free, how can we use our freedom well in such challenging times? In his essay 'The End of the War', written just after Hiroshima and published in October 1945 -- the same month as the lecture -- he exhorted his readers to decide what kind of world they wanted, and make it hap­pen. From now on, he wrote, we must always take into account our knowledge that we can destroy ourselves at will, with all our history and perhaps life on earth itself. Nothing stops us but our own free choosing. If we want to survive, we have to decide to live. Thus, he offered a phi­losophy designed for a species that had just scared the hell out of itself, but that finally felt ready to grow up and take responsibility.

"The institutions whose authority Sartre challenged in his writings and talks responded aggressively. The Catholic Church put Sartre's entire works on its Index of Prohibited Books in 1948, from his great philosophical tome Being and Nothingness to his novels, plays and essays. They feared, rightly, that his talk of freedom might make peo­ple doubt their faith. ... Marxists hated it too. ... From dif­ferent ideological starting points, opponents of existentialism almost all agreed that it was, as an article in Les nouvelles littéraires phrased it, a 'sickening mixture of philosophic pretentiousness, equivocal dreams, physiological technicalities, morbid tastes and hesitant eroti­cism ... an introspective embryo that one would take distinct pleasure in crushing'.

"Such attacks only enhanced existentialism's appeal for the young and rebellious, who took it on as a way of life and a trendy label. From the mid-1940s, 'existentialist' was used as shorthand for anyone who practised free love and stayed up late dancing to jazz music. As the actor and nightclubber Anne-Marie Cazalis remarked in her memoirs, 'If you were twenty, in 1945, after four years of Occupation, freedom also meant the freedom to go to bed at 4 or 5 o'clock in the morn­ing.' It meant offending your elders and defying the order of things. It could also mean mingling promiscuously with different races and classes. The philosopher Gabriel Marcel heard a lady on a train saying, 'Sir, what a horror, existentialism! I have a friend whose son is an exis­tentialist; he lives in a kitchen with a Negro woman!'

"The existentialist subculture that rose up in the 1940s found its home in the environs of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés church on the Left Bank of Paris -- an area that still milks the association for all it is worth. Sartre and Beauvoir spent many years living in cheap Saint-Germain hotels and writing all day in cafés, mainly because these were warmer places to go than the unheated hotel rooms. ... After the cafés, there were subterranean jazz dives to go to. ... Existentialists wore cast-off shirts and raincoats; some of them sported what sounds like a proto-punk style. One youth went around with 'a completely shredded and tattered shirt on his back', according to a journalist's report. They eventually adopted the most iconic exis­tentialist garment of all: the black woolen turtleneck.

"In this rebellious world, just as with the Parisian bohemians and Dadaists in earlier generations, everything that was dangerous and provocative was good, and everything that was nice or bourgeois was bad."


Sarah Bakewell


At the Existentialist Cafe


Other Press


Copyright 2016 by Sarah Bakewell


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