At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell

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At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: An enticement to seriously consider existentialism, wrapped in a delicious biography of the people who devised it as a way not just of thinking but of living.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 448 Date: March 2017
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099554882

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You know that old saying about judging books by their cover? Ignore it! I have found that by judging a book by its cover and getting it completely wrong is a great way to find yourself committed to reading a book that you'd never have picked in a million years and yet, somehow, being amazingly glad you did.

So whilst I only rarely give credit to the designers, in this case Simone Massini: take a bow!

To be fair I'm not entirely sure what I expected from the book. Probably something considerably lighter, possibly a bit frivolous. That design I'm praising may well depict three of our philosophical greats, but it does have a 'feel' to it which isn't exactly chic-lit, but maybe suggestive of the 1930s satirists? This is not a complaint. It did the job. It drew me in.

Let's get the warning out of the way first: this is a philosophy book.

It might be by way of a primer for those of us who know next to nothing about philosophy (in which vein it succeeds admirably) but it is still full of big words and untranslatable ideas and a way of baffling language into a submission that has you siding with Humpty Dumpty who insisted that words would mean whatever he wanted them to mean. The philosophers have the opposite approach: they try to create words to mean what they want them to mean, which succeeds better in, say, German with it's compound-word-as-normal structure, less so in English. My French isn't good enough to know how they coped. Bakewell, to her credit, doesn't shy away from this. She tries to explain by example and analogy and competing translations leaving the reader to grasp whichever makes most sense in context.

The big words are definable. I just need to reach for my OED and try to learn the meaning of epistemological, ontology, dialectic, and whatever else ended up my look-it-up-later list. Coming out of a book with such a list might make you think it's way too hard, but on the contrary, being able to 'not worry about it right now' is testament to the flow of the story, which kept me reading and not worrying about the subtleties. They'll still be there for later study.

In recommending this book to philosophy novices, I recommend you approach it with that in mind. First time: just read it. The bits you don't grasp you can come back to. That's my plan.

As the title hints, the philosophy in question is Existentialism. Baker looks at the philosophy by taking a historical and biographical approach. She starts with Jean-Paul Satre and Simone de Beauvoir, the key players at the heart of the movement when it garnered its name, and the drivers that kept it alive for the rest of their lives, although their own personal philosophical approaches to life, the universe and everything clearly shifted. From these two she moves outwards to those in their sphere, in particular Raymond Aron and Albert Camus and Maurice Merleau-Ponty – but also backwards to the immediate forerunners Heidegger and Huserl – back in fact all the way to the ancient Greeks.

It is far from a dry run, though. Bakewell uses the life and times of these people to try to put their thoughts in context. Drawing on the past, she focuses primarily on the twentieth century thinkers. This cannot be one without factoring in the impacts of the Great War, the interwar years, the second world war and its aftermath, particularly in mainland Europe. Most of the thinkers under consideration are French or German – from the two nations most directly impacted by the conflicts of the time. That doesn't mean that wider world events weren't influential. The French thinkers had the Algerian situation to consider, post-war everyone had not only the Nazi experience, but also the rise of communism and, perhaps even more crucially for early 21st century thinkers, the rise of technology to contend with.

The author's tone is personal and pragmatic – and she's not averse to the occasional aside to camera quip.

It's not so much a critique of existentialism, as a survey of how it started, what the various key players were trying to say, and why perhaps they thought the way they did. It's also an acknowledgement that – all appearances to the contrary – philosophers are also people. They make horrendous decisions (like joining the National Socialists, or supporting violent revolution or political torture); they grow older and wiser (or perhaps more cynical or more entrenched); they adapt to the changes in the world (or they don't). Above all they are also subject to their own petty jealousies and friendship bust-ups and bruised egos. Some of them appear to be manic-depressive, to use the older more descriptive term, whilst others are irrepressibly joyous. It is this analysis of the people behind the thinking that makes the book more accessible than it otherwise might have been.

It absolutely works as a primer for those wanting to get into the deep meaningful end of the subject matter, but it's much more engrossing as an insight into the lives of these very famous people who – to me – seem like figures from history but were actually still sipping their cocktails only a few years ago.

On balance: I enjoyed reading it, I'm sure I've missed a lot, couldn't grasp some concepts easily enough, was grateful for my German language grounding to help with some others, but still learned a lot. I came out of it knowing I want to read de Beauvoir, fairly certain I'll give Sartre a miss, and desperate to revisit Camus with a better understanding than our A-level French teacher managed to get across. The number of turned-down pages in my copy is testament to how many times I'll be coming back to this one.

For more introductory thoughts on things philosophical we can recommend Why We Think the Things we Think: Philosophy in a Nutshell by Alain Stephen or if you liked the biographical take on this one, go back in time to the beginnings of thinking about thinking in the context of the life & times, try The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life by Bettany Hughes.

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